The times, they are a-changin. Those who refuse to adapt will find a hard path to walk. The United States of America and it’s National Defense Strategy faces a major paradigm shift as we go into the future. As things stand today, the USA has lost its way and place on the world stage. We have a military, economy, and populace that are grossly ill-equipped or structured for the challenges ahead. In a trouble world, with austere times coming at us like a freight train, we must carefully choose our strategy and tailor our forces for the most dangerous threat ahead.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US Military has focused on small regional fights against nations that cannot remotely compete in terms of military capability. Fights would be small in size and the US could bank on rapidly achieving air superiority and secure lines of communication to the battlefield.
Still, the wars we had illustrated many of the flawed assumptions of the US Military. The Balkans were primarily an air campaign to achieve strategic objectives, but highlighted the vulnerabilities of our technology. The Serbs shot down an F-117 stealth fighter-bomber with a surface to air missile. Despite a massive air campaign, the vast majority of the Serb armor survived. I’ve walked the ground in Kosovo to see how the prepared defensive positions and concealment efforts of the Serbs paid off and our alleged information dominance proved illusionary.
Afghanistan, initially the war on the cheap, opened the door to large scale employment of unconventional forces partnering with foreign armies. The stunning success of the Special Forces Community would not have been the same if the Taliban had a decent air defense system. We learned some bad habits.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was rapid and dominant, but against a very poorly trained and equipped military. Still, the concept of deep strike using attack helicopters was exposed at the expense of an entire battalion’s destruction. Our casualties were remarkably low, as were our equipment losses. Still, a few losses illustrated the truth that no combat system is invulnerable and the enemy gets a vote in how the war will go.
The long slog of the US led counter-insurgency (COIN) fight in Iraq and Afghanistan sucked the US Military completely away from its capability to fight near-peer adversaries as the 12 month on, 12 month off deployment cycle resulted in highly tailored training. The concerning part of this loss in capability was the stunningly widely held belief that despite zero training for the near-peer fight, that the US military would still be able to dominate one of those fights.
During my time, I witnessed brigades believing a cavalry troop, equipped with only M3 Bradleys and M1151 Humvees, could attack a tank and mechanized infantry team in a prepared defense, complete with extensive tactical obstacles. To reinforce this absurd idea, the observer/controllers reconstituted “destroyed” Bradleys and Humvees that my tanks and Bradleys destroyed at long range using the weapons systems capabilities we were supposed to replicate (T-80BV and BMP-2 with AT-11 Sniper/Refleks missiles and AT-5 Spandrel/Konkurs missiles and cannon fire). I could go on with more examples.
The National Defense Strategy must be simple and ask very limited and overlapping tasks of the military. A jack of all trades is great at nothing. Modern warfare proves unforgiving to those not great. The strategy must reduce its ambition to meet the force capability, or increase the force size to create the units necessary to address the other ambitions. The later is fiscally a pipe dream.
Syria illustrated the pitfalls of an incoherent strategy. We are now mired in perhaps the most confusing goat-rodeo of a military campaign the US has ever tip-toed into. Syria was the warning sign for the fork in the road for the US and brings us to the argument at hand.
First, the elephant in the room. The USA absolutely sucks at nation building. Frankly, it is not our place to tell other countries what government they ought to have. Every country we have waltzed in to save from itself has either deteriorated into a worse cesspool of instability or resulted in decades long military obligations to prop up whatever government we install, or both. Conversely, when we utterly and totally defeat a nation and its populace, we do a good job of helping them back on their feet (Germany and Japan, 1945-1990).
The problem with our addiction to nation building is we have military obligations in too many places that eat away our national combat power. Worse, our populace has grown accustomed to war without impact on the people. Civilian leadership act as if committing troops is like writing a check. You don’t see the money and it is done with the flick of a wrist.
The people of the United States of America are not mentally ready for a major fight. In 1993, nineteen American casualties during the Battle of Mogadishu rocked America and the politicians. Even the worst days in Iraq and Afghanistan never topped a hundred lives in a single battle. Modern combat against a peer will result in a significantly higher human cost. The truth is any military commitment has the potential to go Mogadishu with the same suddenness as OPERATION GOTHIC SERPENT in 1993. The war in Ukraine currently takes over 200 Russian lives each day, and likely a similar number from the Ukrainians. The initial weeks of the war saw casualty rates well over a thousand per day. The question the American populace would ask in the face of such loss is what the hell are we fight for anyway? For good reason. Our National Defense Strategy must account for this question.
Currently, the Biden Administration seems aware of this question and is tip-toeing around the Ukraine conundrum. The national strategy against Russia is economic sanctions. However, our National Defense Strategy is not wholistic and those very sanctions on Russia are having serious effects on the American economy thanks to a self-inflicted unforced error. Eliminating Russia’s petrol supply has forced more demand on the other energy sources and the supply-demand curve is not in our favor. Green energy technology and capabilities are so far from the point of being able to pick up the load it isn’t even funny.
Our National Defense Strategy must ensure that every tool, including those short of war, are effective and not counterproductive. For sanctions to work, our economy must be structured to withstand the global effects. Every policy and every law passed for any facet of our lives must keep this factor in mind. Every American company CEO or board should consider it their patriotic duty to consider their decisions effects in terms of sustainability in times of economic war.
First and foremost is complete energy independence. A country that is not reliant on others for energy can weather the storm of global energy disruptions. We learned this lesson the hard way in the 1970’s with the sanctions and embargo onslaught in the Persian Gulf. Now we have learned it all over again because we have allowed politicians to wreck our independence in the name of forcing energy sources before the conditions are even set. Of all the critical components of a successful National Defense Strategy, complete energy independence must be the cornerstone.
Food supply and essential manufacturing must also be capable of providing for our populace in the event of economic war. As long as we don’t screw it up like we did the energy sector, we are good on food. Our manufacturing base must be capable of providing, which means we as a people better learn to champion blue collar work and make some concessions about what retirement should look like. The Defense Industrial Base needs to bring ALL of our component manufacturing back home to the United States shores. Why on earth we allowed the outsourcing of components of the F-35 to so many countries is beyond comprehension. Politics of cooperation are failing miserably. The government must drive policy to foster the return of our manufacturing base and blue collar sector.
Self sufficiency has a bonus effect that gives our national interests have a foundation to stand on. Without an over-extended economy largely dependent on other countries for essentials, our need to protect our place in those countries is diminished. This pays dividends towards our peaceful security. Without having to force stability around the world to keep our economy afloat, we can return to being the protector of freedom. Remember, we suck at being the world’s nation building police anyway.
Military force is the foreign policy tool of last resort and should be reserved for wars that truly require it. What does that kind of war look like? To be a just war, our actions must be to the defense of a sovereign nation. For illustration, defense of Ukraine would be just as the defense of Kuwait in 1990-1991 was just. Such an endeavor would be significant, against a large and capable military. A just shooting war demands fighting with all of our might and means taking the time to do it right.
As long as the United States maintains and adheres to the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, no country will ever invade our soil. The 2nd Amendment provides a foundation for our National Defense Strategy, which was the point of it. A large armed populace makes an invasion foolhardy and also provides a baseline level of skill and comfort with weapons for soldiers. The 2nd Amendment also means that we are going to fight wars on someone else’s turf.
Our National Defense Strategy must account for securing a springboard for ground operations and for the lines of communication to get to the fight. As much as this West Pointer hates to admit it, the US Navy is probably the most important branch for our wartime capability. With the quantity of commerce traveling the seas and the consolidation of that commerce onto fewer but larger ships, keeping the lines of communication open is a harder challenge than before.
Over the last few years, we have witnesses a strengthening of the ties between Russia and China, both are highly likely force a war that meets the criteria for our involvement in a just shooting war. Both have navies that are capable of crippling lines of communication. Even Iran’s sabotage of ships transiting the Persian Gulf indicates vulnerabilities to small boat actions, not to mention submarines. Nearly all countries have economies reliant on shipping. A shooting war implies an economic war also and the National Defense Strategy must incorporate attacking our foe’s shipping capability to seize or destroy, and assume the same in return.
Wars on another continent require partnerships with allies to provide forward staging. These locations must be strategically located and then provided the capabilities to protect the bases from the inevitable missile, air strike, and cyber attacks. Redundancy in infrastructure is vital.
Currently, the US Military prepositions equipment around the world. Despite these prepositions, the US still must ship large quantities of equipment back and forth across the ocean. This costs money, but it is also a vulnerability. A division’s worth of equipment requires a dozen or more large cargo ships. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, including loading and unloading time takes three weeks. The Pacific Ocean is even larger. Travel time from military bases to ports adds even more time.
The defense strategy must choose if taking the time to transport the required equipment first is the course of action it wants or drawing from prepositioned stocks is preferred. For prepositioned stocks to be of value, the equipment must receive regular maintenance and exercise. It must be staffed and resourced. Additionally, the stock must be large enough and complete enough to equip and sustain a combat force for at least a month. The rate of ammunition and equipment expenditure in a modern war vastly outpaces the Air Force’s capability to transport by air.
Frankly, modern warfare consumes personnel and materials much faster than our country is capable of sustaining beyond a few months at best. Stockpiles are good, but many modern munitions have a limited shelf life. I’ve personally seen AT-4 rockets and TOW missiles go bad with age and 120mm cannon rounds disintegrate. While some ammunition can last decades and still work, most of our important weapons require a focus on rapid manufacturing capability.
The National Defense Strategy must address means for rapidly expanding key manufacturing capability like we did in World War Two. Building a larger factory in the event of war won’t work. Construction is too slow. Plans and partnerships must be in place to either vastly increase production of existing lines, or expand into a similar plant’s footprint and labor pool. These critical factories also become centers of gravity worthy of protection against cyber and physical attacks.
The big constraint steamrolling into the future National Defense Strategy is the cold economic truth. The US is so deep in debt our monthly payments are just about to the breaking point. Unit costs of much of our weaponry has ballooned and forced smaller quantities. While the costs have skyrocketed, the capability boost is marginal to modest at best. I would argue a well trained crew in a M1A1HA (Heavy Armor) tank is 95% good as a well trained crew in a M1A2v3, but the price point is double.
Ukraine has clearly illustrated that super expensive equipment is just as easily destroyed as the more simple systems but is seeing as much success from their T-64s as the Russians got from their T-90M. In Iraq, my company lost a M1A2SEP tank to a suspected RPG-29, a weapon from the Cold War, but it took over a month to get a replacement tank.
The National Defense Strategy must acknowledge the realities of war instead of the whiteboard notions the Pentagon, Congress and the Defense Industry believe in. Having two M1A1HA on hand is better in the long run than just one M1A2v3. If an upgrade will not provide a corresponding boost in capability for the cost, let’s not waste money and tell the Defense Industry to try harder.
A realistic and discerning look at the employment of military force and what the nation can actually afford is vital to a long term national security. Weekly or daily Hellfire strikes on insurgents might not be beneficial at all.
A smart National Defense Strategy will dictate a force structure that is able to achieve the strategy in a realistic manner. A realization that “we fight tonight” is not going to fly against a near-peer foe without a massive expansion of the military. Such an expansion is not feasible with the fiscal restraints we face. A strategy that looks at time and space, with an understanding of what is needed to accomplish the task correctly, can allow balancing of forces between the active and reserve components. Capabilities that cannot be quickly trained as part of an expanding military must be maintained at the expense of capabilities easier to master.
Developing partnerships with allies to enable future bases and common understandings yield more benefit than military action in failed states. Part of that understanding is a promise that if our friend is invaded by another country, we will come to the rescue. It might not happen overnight, but if we must launch a modern OPERATION OVERLORD, we will. However, if you go off and invade another country for nation building, you are on your own.
The final piece of the National Defense Strategy is consistent and steadfast messaging. Drawing red lines in the sand and then backing down from them erodes the strategy completely. Politicians must understand that a promise made must be kept. If the idea was not worth sticking to, don’t make the promise.
In conclusion, the US National Defense Strategy should be focused on winning a single war at a time against a powerful enemy that has invaded a neighboring sovereign nation. The US should only go to war when absolutely and completely justified and then go to war with everything we have got. The National Defense Strategy must ensure the national economy is self-sufficient to weather the effects of total war as it guts the enemy’s economy. The military must be provided the resources to sustain a fight that will last a year or years until the enemy nation is defeated. Our elected and appointed politicians and officials must thoroughly understand the National Defense Strategy and ensure all policies, laws, and statements do not undermine it.