Shadow Government

How will we fight the next war?

By Tom Mahnken   With U.S. forces heavily engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, irregular warfare has become the marquee mission of the Defense Department. But, despite calls by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for a balanced force posture, advocates of irregular warfare often appear eager to downplay the possibility that the United States could find ...

KORENGAL VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN - OCTOBER 28: U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Stephenson, 21, calls in a mortar strike on a Taliban position during a firefight October 28, 2008 in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. American forces from 2nd Platoon Viper Company of the 1-26 Infantry occupied the strategic mountaintop, and were attacked by Taliban insurgents. No Americans were injured in the ensuing firefight and Taliban casualties were unknown. The Korengal Valley in Kunar Province is the site of some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghan war. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

By Tom Mahnken

With U.S. forces heavily engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, irregular warfare has become the marquee mission of the Defense Department. But, despite calls by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for a balanced force posture, advocates of irregular warfare often appear eager to downplay the possibility that the United States could find itself at war with a technologically capable adversary.

In fact, the debate that is playing out now over the relative merits of high-technology weaponry is the third to occur since the end of World War II.  As I chronicle in my Technology and the American Way of War Since 1945, similar debates occurred in the 1950s between advocates of nuclear weapons and those of conventional systems — and in the 1970s and 1980s between the “military reform” movement, which sought to buy more, cheaper and less-advanced weapons, and advocates of high-technology systems.

The current transformation debate has its roots in the 1990s. In the wake of the unexpectedly lopsided outcome of the 1991 Gulf War, scholars and practitioners in the United States and elsewhere began arguing that the world was experiencing a revolution in military affairs (RMA) brought on by the development and diffusion of information technology. For three administrations (it was under Bill Clinton that “transformation” got underway), the leadership of the U.S. Defense Department has sought to increase the battlefield effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces by combining advanced technology with innovative operational concepts and organizations. Gates has notably retained transformation as a top goal.

Much of the discussion of the RMA in the 1990s was predicated on opportunity: advocates argued that the United States should pursue new ways of war because they would allow it to win victories faster, more decisively, and at lower cost. And although there was considerable rhetorical support for transformation from both senior civilians and military officers, they tended to mouth transformation without making any hard choices. No major acquisition programs were terminated. Instead, advocates put old wine in new bottles labeled “transformation.”

The election of George W. Bush and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks saw a refocusing of transformation away from the potential advantages of new ways of war toward the costs of remaining wedded to the status quo, away from the aspirational and toward the practical. The rhetoric of the 1990s was replaced by the reality of war.

Transformation skeptics are right to dismiss some of the more breathless predictions of technophiles. We should not, however, ignore the very real impact that information technology has had on the face of war, including the “irregular” or “hybrid” wars that we are currently fighting. 

This impact can be seen in four areas:

1. New Ways of War. This is perhaps most apparent in the growing use of precision guided munitions (PGMs): whereas 8 percent of the weapons employed during the 1991 Gulf War were guided, 29 percent of those used over Kosovo in eight years later, 60 percent of those used in Afghanistan ten years later, and 68 percent of those used in Iraq twelve years later were guided. Precision is now routine.

Another sign of the changing character of war is the growing use of unmanned systems, both for reconnaissance and surveillance and, increasingly, for strike missions. The U.S. military had only two operational types of UAVs in the year 2000, but at least 12 different systems are expected to be in active service by 2015. Gates has had to push to get these systems fielded in numbers big enough to meet the demand of warfighters.

2. Changing Structure and Identity of Military Organizations. The availability of PGMs has allowed air forces to substitute increasingly for artillery.  This has, in turn, changed the historical relationship between ground and air forces.  In Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, ground forces have served to fix enemy forces for engagement from the air.

These changes challenge the identity of parts of the armed forces.  Because GPS-guided weapons require much less operator involvement, they threaten to transform attack aircraft pilots into nothing more than glorified truck drivers.  The widespread employment of UAVs and armed UCAVs presages an even more dramatic challenge to the identity of the pilot. Many of the UAVs operating over Afghanistan and Iraq are controlled not from the theater, but by operators located outside of Las Vegas: officers who fight the war as their day job and then go home to their families. 

3. Changing Perceptions of Military Power. Although predicting the course and outcome of future wars is difficult, military experts have done a generally poor job in recent years. It may be that the quality of expertise in the military field is declining, but a more compelling explanation is that the character of war is changing in some significant ways. As John Keegan forthrightly admitted in 2001, “Warfare is undergoing some strange transformations. Outcomes are becoming increasingly difficult to predict.” He noted that, “In the last 20 years, I have been required professionally to comment upon, to analyze, and to predict outcomes in five wars: The Falklands, the Gulf, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo and now Afghanistan. The task has become progressively more difficult.”

4. Changing Balance of Power. Mastery of advanced technology has given the United States a substantial conventional advantage over the range of plausible adversaries. The experience of recent conflicts contains ample evidence that the United States can defeat conventional militaries handily. The U.S. advantage in anti-armor warfare is such that it is difficult to imagine an armored force that could threaten U.S. forces. It is also difficult to imagine a surface fleet that could compete with the U.S. Navy. 

Adversaries have, of course, adopted countermeasures to America’s conventional edge. Some states, such as North Korea and Iran, have sought or are seeking nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in an effort to deter the United States or level the playing field should war come.  Others have adopted terrorism or guerrilla warfare strategies. Still others, such as China, are acquiring advanced weaponry, such as anti-satellite weapons and anti-ship ballistic missiles, to exploit what they perceive as U.S. vulnerabilities. These developments will pose considerable challenges for the U.S. military for the foreseeable future.

As the Defense Department conducts its Quadrennial Defense Review, planners cannot ignore the need to continue to invest in advanced technology and to employ it in innovative ways. Although it would be wrong to see in advanced technology the key to victory in the wars of today or tomorrow, it would be foolish to ignore the very real advantage that technology has given, and continues to give, the United States. One would be at pains to find a single soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan who would trade away his body armor, night-vision goggles, and intra-squad communications, or support from UAVs, and PGMs. 

The U.S. armed forces both need to wage a protracted war against jihadist extremists while also preparing for the possibility of a high-intensity conflict against a capable adversary. Indeed, balancing the very different capabilities required to confront near-term and far-term threats is one of the central challenges that U.S. defense planners face.

John Moore/Getty Images

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