Still the Best

The decline of the U.S. armed forces has been greatly exaggerated.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

In the wake of victory in the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. armed forces were widely acknowledged to be the best in the world. Indeed, the combination of suitable doctrine, exceptional training and discipline, and technological dominance provided such overmatch against conventionally armed opponents that onlookers posited a coming age of American military supremacy. A revolution in military affairs underpinned by precision-guided munitions and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems would provide battlespace dominance and enable rapid, decisive operations that could quickly collapse an enemy armed force or regime by directly attacking its center of gravity. A "Pax Americana" would guarantee peace and prosperity for the indefinite future.

Wars against irregular opponents in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade have tempered such visionary notions. After dramatic conventional operations that quickly dispatched the Taliban and Iraqi armed forces, the U.S. military and its allies found themselves enmeshed in guerrilla conflicts for which they were ill-prepared. The focus on technology and conventional warfighting left all too many military leaders intellectually unprepared to adapt to the kind of wars they faced, rather than trying to mold the conflicts into the kind of wars they wanted. After several years of drift, a number of leaders stepped forward to fashion new doctrine, improve training, and create viable operational concepts to wage counterinsurgency warfare. The result was a military victory during the surge in Iraq and the reversal of the Taliban tide in Afghanistan. The outcomes of both conflicts are still uncertain, but this has more to do with strategic failings concerning the decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place and our inability to force Pakistan to close down insurgent sanctuaries on its soil than with inadequate operational capabilities of the U.S. armed forces.

Just because American military superiority did not lead to the desired outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan does not mean that we should swing to the other extreme and believe that the expense of maintaining conventional dominance has not been worth the cost. American naval and air forces dominate the seas, skies, and space of the global commons, creating a stable environment for interstate commerce and international exchange. American land power has stabilized a number of regions, among them Europe and Northeast Asia, that for centuries were among the most volatile in the world. These manifest accomplishments were the result of astute diplomacy backed by American military superiority. The absence of major interstate war today is the result of American strength, not weakness.

American strength relies to a great degree on the capabilities of its military forces. There are a number of factors that go into determining their combat effectiveness, among them leadership, discipline, morale, doctrine, command and control, adaptability, intelligence, interservice cooperation, fire support, endurance, and technology. Many of these factors are determined more by brainpower, organization, and good training than by large military budgets. Furthermore, a greater percentage of U.S. soldiers have combat experience today than in the armed forces of any other major power, a not negligible advantage that the U.S. military will retain for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, advanced technology is crucial to the effectiveness of military forces, and those militaries that fail to adapt to new technology are likely candidates for defeat in battle. Although U.S. military forces in the Gulf War might have been able to switch equipment with the Iraqi military and still prevail, the outcome would no doubt have been much bloodier. The cost of exceptional arms and equipment is a small price to pay to prevent filling tens of thousands of body bags on the battlefield.

Few weapons emerge from the design and experimentation stages without flaws. This observation especially applies to new types of weapons, such as remotely piloted vehicles. Looking at an M1A2 Abrams tank today, it is hard to envision that its predecessor was the slowly, clunky machine of World War I vintage that could travel at less than 5 miles per hour and that broke down after a few dozen miles of use. The same applies to modern fighter jets, which originated from biplanes built of canvas, wood, and wire. The complaints of some observers that the performance of the MQ-9 Reaper is "pathetic" miss the entire point that a new era of air weaponry has dawned. The remotely piloted vehicles in the U.S. Air Force of the future will dwarf the capabilities of those now in service — that is, unless the United States decides to stop their development. In that case, the same technological outcome will occur, but the most effective weapons on the planet will be Chinese or Russian instead of American.

Technological prowess is of more than just passing interest to soldiers at the sharp end of combat. The last time that U.S. ground forces came under air attack was the spring of 1953, during the Korean War. Nearly 60 years on, American soldiers can still fight without worrying about attack from manned enemy aircraft. As a result, the U.S. Army has been able to economize thousands of soldiers by disbanding short-range air defense units. If the F-22 fighter is necessary to ensure that happy situation extends into the future, then it is worth the cost. Exercises rigged to display the aircraft’s vulnerability in short-range combat miss the point that enemy aircraft will rarely be able to close the distance to gun range. Shooting down enemy aircraft with long-range missiles may not be as sexy as a dogfight, but the outcome is the same. Dead is dead. If the problem with the F-22, rather, is lack of training time for its pilots, then cutting their flying hours by reducing the Air Force budget is hardly the answer.

As the United States enters another interwar era with the 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan, the question is not whether military budgets will decline, but by how much. There are some benefits to be gained from forcing the military services to economize. Budget shortfalls have a unique way of forcing military leaders to open themselves to more creative ideas. Having acknowledged this truism, the benefit of declining resources has its limits. The U.S. military in the 1920s and 1930s, bereft of funding by an isolationist public, focused its efforts on professional military education and created such forward-looking concepts as strategic bombing, armored warfare, and carrier aviation. On the other hand, lack of funds for equipment, testing, experimentation, and training left the armed forces critically short of modern tanks, escort fighters, and carrier aircraft. Even after 18 months of mobilization that began after the fall of France in June 1940, the U.S. armed forces were woefully unprepared when war came with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The United States today no longer enjoys the space and time provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to mobilize military forces once war begins. The impact of modern technology in a globalized world means that America will go to war with the military forces it has, not the forces it can build. Reductions in the defense budget will require policy makers to make difficult trade-offs or reduce defense commitments. Political leaders might say they are willing to assume more risk, at least until defeat stares them in the face. The final arbitration of war is harsh indeed.

There is no doubt that America’s armed forces will face competent, intelligent enemies in the future. All the more reason to adequately fund the type of research, experimentation, testing, and training that go into the creation of effective military forces. On the other hand, we could instead decide to rely on superior intellect, morale, and discipline to decide future conflicts, in which case the words of historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart in The Ghost of Napoleon come to mind: "The failure to adapt theory to reality has been matched by the failure to adapt armament to technical progress — to adopt new weapons that invention made available at the time when they promised a decisive advantage." To say that the human factors that underpin military forces are more important than technological prowess is all well and good, but one must also remember that the spirit is powerless when the body is riddled with shot. Just ask those terrorists whose ranks have been decimated by the supposedly ineffective MQ-9 Reaper drone strikes during the last four years.

Just as history holds examples of technologically inferior militaries emerging victorious in war, it contains just as many if not more examples of armed forces getting crushed by larger and more technologically capable opponents. The British destruction of the Zulu impis at Ulundi, the U.S. Navy’s destruction of the Spanish Pacific Fleet at Manila, the allied offensives in France and Belgium in the fall of 1918 that drove the Imperial German Army to defeat, the U.S. Navy’s destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, the Allied victory in Normandy, the Red Army’s destruction of Army Group Center, the North Vietnamese offensive that overran the southern part of the country in 1975, and Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Gulf War are all examples of why, in the end, it is better to be both effective and strong. The goal of the U.S. military should be to win the next conflict in a walkover.

Having the best armed forces in the world, however, does not make the United States invulnerable to defeat. Good strategy is still the sine qua non of victory in war. The German army is an example of a tactically and operationally brilliant force that lost two world wars because of the strategic ineptitude of German political and military leaders. If it is not careful, the United States may tread the same path in the 21st century. As Allan Millett and Williamson Murray point out in their superlative study of military effectiveness in the first half of the twentieth century, tactical and operational shortfalls can be corrected over time, but mistakes in strategy tend to live on forever.

This is the level at which the debate between the presidential candidates should be conducted. Instead, the public is treated to a steady diet of inflammatory rhetoric. Did the Obama administration deny additional security to the U.S. ambassador to Libya after repeated requests? Which candidate is more aligned with Israeli policy? Who would be tougher on China? Is al Qaeda dead yet? Should sequestration happen?

These matters are important, but they don’t ask — or answer — the broader and more important questions concerning national security policy and strategy. What is the guiding grand strategy that underpins U.S. policy toward the rest of the world? What should be the role of the United States in protecting the global commons? Is "leading from behind" really in the best interests of the United States and its allies? What is the relationship of the United States to the new governments spawned by the Arab Spring? How can the United States and its allies help China rise peacefully given that no other major power in history has done so without conflict? Should the United States be content to contain a nuclear-armed Iran, or is preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon worth plunging the Middle East into a nasty and prolonged war?

The answers to these questions are neither easy nor simple. Some of them, indeed, are wicked problems that have no solutions — policy makers can only put forward a series of unattractive policies to produce less-than-optimal outcomes. But if the United States approaches the future from a position of economic, military, and diplomatic strength, the national security dilemmas it faces become more manageable.

Increased military spending alone cannot solve all of America’s national security woes, but if one believes that the U.S. armed forces are no longer the best in the world, it is hard to understand why cutting their budget would produce a better product. Budget cuts could lead to more innovative thinking and procurement reform, noble goals that all Americans should applaud. But we should be under no illusion that cutting the defense budget will somehow lead to the creation of a more effective military. Less is not more; less is less. The president can compare U.S. Navy warships to bayonets and horses, but the fact is that policing the world’s oceans requires more, not fewer, of them. The U.S. Air Force is operating tanker aircraft built more than a half century ago. The technology of the U.S. Army’s tank and infantry fighting vehicles hails back to the 1970s. The list of needs is long and growing.

The U.S. military requires recapitalization, an expensive but necessary proposition to maintain its superiority in a world that is increasingly volatile and dangerous. Whether lawmakers are willing to risk reducing U.S. military capabilities to fund other budgetary priorities is perhaps the key question with which they will have to wrestle in upcoming months. If the answer is yes, then the perceived decline of the U.S. armed forces may indeed become reality in the next administration, with all the ramifications that such an unhappy outcome portend for the future of U.S. national security.

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