No More Easy Wars
America is resurrecting the same strategy that failed in Iraq -- and ground troops will pay the price.
Why is the myth of easy war so appealing to American strategists?
Over the last decade, the United States spent more than a trillion dollars and the lives of thousands of American troops unlearning the tenets of network-centric warfare, the 1990s-vintage belief that precision strikes by coordinated, high-tech forces would allow the country to obliterate critical nodes in enemy defenses. Hostile forces would collapse under such punishment, and opponents would rapidly bow to American desires, making the capability to execute protracted ground wars unnecessary — or so the theory went.
By 2003, as the United States prepared to invade Iraq, a military-intellectual bubble had built up around these ideas, manifested in the doctrine of Shock and Awe. And for a few short weeks that spring, as U.S. forces launched their first salvos against Saddam Hussein and rolled toward Baghdad, this plan seemed to work — until it failed catastrophically. No one had planned what to do after U.S. forces threw that first spectacular punch and our enemies decided not to surrender. For the next eight years, the story of Iraq became a story of a U.S. strategic establishment overcoming its own denial, wrestling with the natural consequences of "easy war." Ultimately, it learned that war is not about target lists and networks. It remains an unpredictable, dynamic human endeavor.
Now, suddenly, those pivotal lessons have vanished like smoke. Even though their ideas miscarried, no one has asked the Shock and Awe acolytes to explain themselves. No one has asked why their ideas failed to defeat the opposition in Iraq. While those who claimed that Iraq would be a "cakewalk" took a thrashing, no one has asked how to win the clash of wills from a distance when bombing fails. The easy-war theorists have been spared hard questioning — in fact, they are once again being embraced.
Today, we are resurrecting the exact same strategies — most notably in the concept of Air-Sea Battle advocated by many in the Pentagon — and we are acting as if they are the solution to the problems encountered in Iraq rather than their cause. A coalition of parochial retirees, think tanks, and special interests are using the current political winds to engineer a flawed defense strategy. Their plan virtually ensures the United States will be unprepared for the next war for three reasons. First, they once again are making indefensible assumptions about the future use of ground forces. Second, they are advancing a techno-war solution for all U.S. security needs that cannot even meet today’s challenges. Finally, they are building their strategy on tools that are becoming obsolete. In the end, this group is just advancing Shock and Awe dressed up in new language. Many of us have seen this before. It ended poorly.
The new Shock and Awe narrative sleekly avoids accountability for its most recent failure with a slick one-two sales pitch: It tells us that we can choose to avoid protracted ground conflict, and it masquerades as an effective solution to the genuine problem posed by anti-access/area-denial strategies, in which an adversary seeks to militarily dominate a region by keeping U.S. forces out.
In the acolytes’ telling, overcoming anti-access can only be accomplished by the technical services — that, is the Air Force and the Navy — fighting through sophisticated defenses, which requires massive investments. They then assume away any chance of ground operations. Precision strikes and distant blockades will spare us the mess of combat. The conclusion is to slash the Army, freeing up money for Big Navy and Air Force. Risk is minimal since the Army is easily expandable.
The story is tight and marketable and has just one shortfall: It does not work. Shock and Awe substitutes problems that can be solved by a target list for the thorny questions that U.S. global security interests naturally pose. It appeals to our natural desire for a quick-fix solution that keeps us arm’s length from strategic entanglement. It makes us feel good, even if it is totally inadequate and unaffordable in the long run.
If you want a sense of this denial, just look at the recent report co-authored by Hoover Institution fellow Kori Schake and retired Adm. Gary Roughead, the former chief of naval operations. It says: "[T]he current strategy is right to consider fighting manpower-intensive, sustained ground combat or counterinsurgency operations unlikely, and we choose to accept risk in this element of our force design because it is unlikely that political leaders will choose that approach."
But wait. This easy-war serum can’t even cure the foreign-policy challenges political leaders face in the near future. How does easy war address the potential collapse of North Korea? How does it resolve U.S. security interests in the Syrian conflict? And dare I ask: Can it prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?
The specter of North Korea’s collapse rapidly unmasks the flawed belief we can avoid or delay ground operations. Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology would require identifying, controlling, and examining thousands of sites, tons of materials, and an unknown number of scientists. The problem is tremendously complex and would demand a comprehensive effort. Yet we are telling ourselves that standoff weapons and cyberattacks can do the trick. And failure to prepare for collapse accepts a massive risk: the loss of nuclear weapons into the world’s arms market.
The recent debate on strikes against Syria highlighted two massive failures of Shock and Awe. First, airstrikes cannot reliably destroy all stocks of chemical weapons. Second, if they fail to stop the use of chemical weapons post-strike, we would be faced with the question: What next? Furthermore, the debate on arming the rebels shows that we simply don’t understand the local dynamics enough to know whom we can reliably support. Finally, we are mulling intervention "if things go south." This real-world problem is much more indicative of the future than grandiose visions of war in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Iran has learned how to defeat strike options by watching Iraq’s experience. Its facilities lie deep underground, probably beyond the reach of conventional weapons. Any military options to stop Iranian nuclear weapons production would require much more than a precision strike. Where would we be then? Searching for an elusive conclusion to a war with a nuclear state seeking revenge.
The lesson is clear: The resurrected strike-centric narrative cannot address the real challenges we face. The enemy gets a vote, and we do not always get to pick our fights. It’s stunningly parochial — actually frightening — that people are advancing such a theory after a decade of wartime experience. The assumption that we won’t engage in ground operations is indefensible.
Something else should frighten us about easy war: The dated strategy relies on dated platforms whose time is passing, namely aircraft carriers and manned strike aircraft. These weapons are not an effective response to the Chinese anti-access threat that is driving current strategic thinking. Current open-source literature discusses how the Chinese are developing a complex, interconnected defensive web. Air-Sea Battle is intended to penetrate those defenses by using a carrier strike group, which represents unstoppable power almost anywhere in the world — except within 1,500 kilometer
s of the Chinese coast, where over 500 cruise missiles and 2,000 aircraft protect the mainland.
Review the math. The Chinese DF-21D anti-ship missile can reach targets over a thousand miles away, while the troubled F-35 only has a 670-mile combat radius. The approach offered by Air-Sea Battle just reprises a failed idea from the past that makes no more sense today. When similar plans were advanced during the Reagan era, Adm. Stansfield Turner commented:
[O]ur Navy is going to be capable of carrying the war right to the Soviets’ home bases and airfields. This sounds stirring and patriotic. The only problem is that I have yet to find one admiral who believes that the U.S. Navy would even attempt it.
The point is valid today. How do we prevent a torrent of million-dollar missiles from sinking billion-dollar ships? Defenses against manned aircraft are moving in a similar direction. Worse yet, as costs drop, the number of countries able to keep strike systems at bay will only increase. The conclusion is crystal clear. Most U.S. naval and air investments are being sunk into platforms that are joining the battleship and the armored knight as relics. If we don’t change, we’re simply buying nostalgia.
Strike-based strategies look ineffective to enemies, aggressive to neutral parties, and unreliable to allies. There can be no doubt that China is the biggest fan of this scheme. The United States is going to sink billions of dollars into a strategy that minimally impacts its objectives. First, the fear that China will actually use its anti-access capabilities to cut commerce routes is dubious. China is a trading power that has little interest in closing sea lanes. Second, easy-war solutions to Chinese aggression aren’t credible. Does anyone believe that pinprick strikes will stop Beijing? Can a carrier-based force dominate critical areas over a country larger than the United States? Will a "distant blockade" be noticed by a county surrounded by trading partners? A strike-based deterrence plan against China ignores the long history on this kind of coercion: Wartime populations and modern economies are incredibly resilient and adaptable. China also likes Shock and Awe because it attacks the strong points of its defenses. What better way to get Uncle Sam out of your sphere of influence than coaxing him into attacking a 21st-century defense with a 20th-century offense? Particularly when building his armada bankrupts him. China likes Air-Sea Battle.
China’s neighbors should also be concerned about the U.S. obsession with easy war. South Korea is a big loser in this strategy because withdrawal of U.S. ground forces is the logical conclusion to massive reductions in the Army. Most countries in the region fear invasion by the 1.25 million-man People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rather than the Chinese navy. A strike-based strategy offers them no meaningful support against the PLA. Delusions about the end of ground war aside, they want a relationship backed with a broad array of power that helps them maintain their independence. If they cannot offset Chinese power, what choice do they have but submission? Here, again, easy war comes up short.
History tells us that land wars simply can’t be wished away. Remember: The United States gutted its Army before World War II, the Korean War, and the Berlin blockade. In all three instances, autocratic countries filled the void. In two cases, the strategic costs were grave. The third case nearly ended in a nuclear exchange. The desire to manufacture a "naval century" produces outrageous strategic risk; it could pose obscene human costs. The Kasserine Pass, the Pusan Perimeter, and the Iraq war all resulted from similar shortsightedness. Consider a Rand Corp. scatter plot of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan: The vast majority of Army personnel have 13 to 29 months of deployment experience. The other services cluster around four to nine months. Even though the United States planned its force in the 1990s assuming away ground campaigns, it stumbled into two. Soldiers paid the bill.
The simple fact is that excessively small ground forces invite war. Regenerating land power takes years. Predicted mobilization of reserves takes months, and unexpected mobilization takes much longer. During that time, we cede initiative to the enemy. Potential adversaries know this and ruthlessly exploit such opportunities. If we want to avoid fighting on the ground, we had best build an army that can win today.
So what’s the alternative to Air-Sea Battle? A good strategy needs to make aggression more expensive to adversaries than deterring aggression is to us. We should start by freshening up the strike paradigm. Rather than sinking billions of dollars into carriers and aircraft that have diminishing utility, we need to leap ahead to the next generation of warfare: We need to go unmanned. The technical services should invest in unmanned ships, aircraft, and submarines (except the ballistic-missile subs). If we possessed scores of aircraft-carrying ships with thousands of strike aircraft, rather than a few massive carrier groups, the Navy would be able to protect the global commons much more efficiently. The associated reduction in aviation training and shipbuilding costs would also relieve budget pressure. We could then discard the utopian assumption that land operations are optional.
We should leverage military-to-military contacts more than ever. Look at the example of Saudi Arabia. For decades, the United States maintained military and diplomatic relations. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, mutual interests converged, and Saudi Arabia became an unsinkable aircraft carrier and staging base. Certainly similar strategies could be employed in Southeast Asia or against Iran. Those relationships that turn to strategic alliance are almost always built on value, and as we’ve seen, most countries in U.S. areas of interest want help building ground forces.
What we should not do is delude ourselves. Strike-based theories are attractive because they offer deceptively easy solutions. They assume away intractable problems and focus on challenges for which we can engineer clean solutions. They make us feel good. They prey on our desire for the cheap miracle cure. Unfortunately, they are really only good for starting wars, not winning or deterring them. If the bankrupt Shock and Awe theory is dressed up as strategy again, someone will call our bluff. Having assumed away hard choices, U.S. leaders will find themselves stuck with two bad choices: accept an intolerable situation or engage in a struggle for which we are unprepared. That is exactly what happened in Iraq. And if we continue to adhere to the same fallacies, we can be sure it will happen again. There are no easy wars.