The future of war (essay no. 15): We will lose it because we are an aging empire wedded to an outmoded style of war
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense future of war entrant
We’ve already fought the war-after-next, and lost. Called “The Millennium Challenge 2002,” it was a simulated war game designed to showcase a high-tech, integrated U.S. Navy’s ability to crush smaller, less sophisticated foes (widely assumed to be Iran) in the Strait of Hormuz. What happened instead was a simulated disaster: Overwhelmed by hundreds of small groups operating according to pre-established, decentralized directives and empowered to think for themselves, the U.S. side quickly lost an entire aircraft carrier support group, as well as numerous aircraft. The notional enemies used basic radar, primitive cruise missiles, rockets, motorcycle couriers, and strategic initiative to achieve total surprise, following up their initial advantage with another wave of de facto missiles — explosives-laden motorboats that were too numerous and speedy for the lumbering Navy ships to engage effectively.
Future planners have spent a great deal of time and energy justifying platforms like the F-22, the F-35, and the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), claiming that they are necessary to win the next war — but they’ve actually been developed to fight some version of World War II. It’s important to maintain a competitive edge in fighter capability to hedge our bets, but considering that we spend as much on our military as the next 10 spenders in the world combined, what are the odds — really — that another country will be able to directly challenge our technological superiority, or that they’ll want to? The last sophisticated military that was stupid enough to challenge us directly was Iraq, in 1991, and what the U.S. military did to Saddam’s entire military infrastructure in three days left an unmistakable mark on our adversaries. (I’m discounting the Taliban because they challenged us not out of confidence that they would be able to resist our attack, but based on the assumption that we wouldn’t attack at all, merely conduct a punitive bombing raid or missile strike.)
The greatest (not necessarily worst, but greatest) military miscalculations of the last four decades have been made by America, Russia, Iraq, Iraq again, and America. There’s something reassuring about having a conventionally frightening military, about a big navy, and a big air force with technologically advanced fighters, and an army with the best, most gadgety tanks. It seems to fill leaders with a sense that anything’s possible.
According to Lockheed Martin, the company that produces the F-22 Raptor, 195 planes were produced for the Air Force, of which eight were test planes, for a total of 187 operational aircraft. Each plane cost an estimated $150 million. Air Force planners seem confident that these planes can deliver air dominance at “the decisive point” in an air conflict with an enemy of equal or slightly greater strength.
But what if this hypothetical enemy — China, Russia, some unforeseen alliance from the Middle East or Africa, united under one brutal Hitler or Napoleon’s fist — is planning on sending up 20 inferior planes for each F-22, and 20 inferior tanks to each Abrams? What if we find ourselves in a position of geographical and political isolation, bereft of allies, and facing an alliance of enemies bent on our destruction? Why wouldn’t they take this approach — the very approach we used on the ground against a technologically superior Nazi Germany, sending 15 Sherman tanks against each Tiger they fielded. Why would our future-future enemy face us on equal terms when we’re apparently very vulnerable to asymmetrical, low-tech attack?
There’s already compelling evidence that the Chinese are developing heavy-duty low-tech cruise missiles designed to sink American naval vessels, from cruisers to aircraft carriers, and sophisticated anti-air platforms for our designer fighters. They saw the results of the Millennium Challenge 2002 and drew the appropriate conclusions. Us? We refloated the sunken U.S. Navy, regenerated the dead soldiers, sailors, and airmen, reconstituted the planes, and started the exercise over again, having imposed certain restrictions on the enemy force, such as identifying the locations of all anti-aircraft radar, imposing targeting restrictions, and making the exercise into one linear script, which resulted in a stunning U.S. victory.
The next war, or two, or three, will likely resemble Iraq or Afghanistan, and will not significantly test American military capabilities, only our political resolve. It’s only a matter of time, however, before we run up against that thoughtful, clever enemy who’s waiting for us, who is savvy enough to align force against our weak points, and charismatic enough to convince our allies to stay out of their business and our enemies that it’s in their best interest to align against us. When that happens, we will face a storm of low-tech fury, and it will overmatch us. Our brave pilots will shoot down dozens of opponents but be shot down in turn; our soldiers will die where they stand, overwhelmed and outnumbered. We can say this with authority because it is how every single empire has ended — undone by its strength and confidence in an old model of warfare, addicted to tradition and unable to pivot quickly enough to adapt to a changing world.
Adrian Bonenberger graduated from Yale University before pursuing his advanced studies in the U.S. Army Infantry. He deployed twice to Afghanistan, where he was decorated for heroism in combat. His war memoirs, Afghan Post, are available through The Head and The Hand Press. He is currently enrolled in the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. And he’s at @AHBonenberger.