Fighting the Last War

Max Boot says John Arquilla's vision for transforming America's military will put the country at risk.

John Arquilla ("The New Rules of War," March/April 2010) thinks the U.S. military remains too conventional, and his solution is a radical one: cut defense spending 10 percent a year, declare "a moratorium … on all legacy-like systems," and cut active military manpower by two-thirds. The model for military intervention, he believes, should be the "200 Special Forces ‘horse soldiers’ who beat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001."

I give Arquilla props for out-of-the-box thinking, as well as for demonstrating why it usually makes sense to stay in the box. The Afghan model he cites has been found wanting since 2001 — a few Special Forces troops could overthrow the Taliban but haven’t been able to keep them down. That task requires dispatching many more troops, which is what U.S. President Barack Obama is wisely doing today.

Likewise, the projection of U.S. power around the world requires more, not fewer, soldiers. Counterinsurgency warfare of the kind that is occurring in Afghanistan is notoriously resistant to the kinds of technological fixes that Arquilla seems enamored of. And I wouldn’t be so quick to junk legacy weapons systems, which for years to come will give the United States an invaluable edge over potential adversaries.

Arquilla is right to guard against overly cautious, old-fashioned thinking. But he goes too far in the other direction, making arguments for extreme change, which if taken seriously, would hollow out the armed forces, undermine U.S. power, and destabilize the entire world.

Max Boot
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
Council on Foreign Relations
New York, N.Y.

John Arquilla replies:

Max Boot suggests that the situation in Afghanistan worsened after the United States’ opening victory because there were too few troops, but he does not acknowledge that violence levels were extremely low there for several years after the Taliban’s fall — despite NATO having only a relative handful of soldiers in the country. Things actually worsened as we put in more troops and began to rely on conventional approaches, instead of the swarming style that won the initial victory.

As to the need for a U.S. presence around the world, my recommendations would allow the United States to operate in more places, for longer periods, and more effectively. The idea that the United States has to send large forces wherever it goes is guaranteed to limit it in ways that embolden its adversaries.

With regard to my being "enamored" of "technological fixes," as Boot suggests, I would simply note that my recommendations are for organizational redesign and doctrinal innovation. I argue against developing the latest fighter aircraft, the new generation of carriers, and other boondoggles.

When it comes to the possibility of a big, old-style war breaking out, the United States would not have to wage it in an old-style manner. Let’s not remain wedded to fighting the last war just because that’s the kind of conflict the United States prefers and is prepared for. There will be too much at stake in the next one for the country to dismiss the idea of making major changes now.

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