Small Wars Journal

Balancing Force Modernization and the Most Likely Future Wars We’ll be Fighting

Balancing Force Modernization and the Most Likely Future Wars We’ll be Fighting by Brad Nicholson, Modern War Institute

Today, military planners focus intensely on countering Russian revanchism in Europe and containing Chinese expansionism in Asia. After more than a decade and a half of fighting “small wars” In Iraq and Afghanistan and conducting counterterrorism strikes in many more countries, our national security focus and increasingly prevailing wisdom suggest the international system may be returning to an era of great power war.

Except, it is not.

Despite predictions to the contrary great power conflict will not dominate global security issues in the twenty-first century. Wars between great powers have steadily declined since WWII with the influence of nuclear weapons upon the international system, a trend that pre-dates American hegemony and argues against unipolarity as the sole causal factor. However, while great power war is unlikely to emerge in the near future, war itself will remain a constant feature of the international system. Instead of large-scale, inter-state conflicts, though, the prevalent form of conflict for the foreseeable future will be civil wars. Nationalism, or even fragmented and atomized derivative identities, will be the driving factor behind these conflicts, manifesting principally as insurgencies.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bipolar balance of power   thawed previously frozen conflicts. From the Balkans to the Caucasus, through the Middle East, to Africa and Southeast Asia, issues of ethnic and nationalist identity have driven political conflicts that have often become violent, and have frequently taken the form of insurgencies. Both contemporary scholarship and US military doctrine indicate insurgents often adopt identity-focused strategies based upon religion, language, or ethnicity. The slow unraveling of artificially constructed and imposed nation-states that has contributed to these post–Cold War insurgencies has far from run its course; the majority of these states and their boundaries remain, and the unraveling will continue throughout this century. The conflicts of the future are going to look more like the ongoing civil war in South Sudan than a great power war across the Taiwan Strait.

The contemporary debate involving the manning, training, and equipping that the US military should undertake in order to modernize and prepare for future conflicts continues to build momentum. In large part this conversation is a reaction to the winding down of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  Many observers view the Russian intervention in Ukraine and Chinese actions in the South China Sea as a glimpse into the nature of future security threats that the US military will likely be forced to confront. Such situations present potential threats to US interests, the case for modernization goes, and other, similar challenges will occur in the near, medium, and long term. Modernization advocates highlight the nature of these threats in order to justify extensive and expensive rearming, retraining, and restructuring initiatives…

Read on.

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Today, military planners focus intensely on countering Russian revanchism in Europe and containing Chinese expansionism in Asia. After more than a decade and a half of fighting “small wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conducting counterterrorism strikes in many more countries, our national security focus and increasingly prevailing wisdom suggest the international system may be returning to an era of great power war.

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The central problem with this line of thinking is that our authors do not see what they call Russian revanchism in Europe, Chinese expansionism in Asia, small wars in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan and counter-terrorism strikes in many more countries as, indeed, ALL BEING PART OF THE VERY SAME WAR, to wit: the New/Reverse Cold War of today.

In this New/Reverse Cold War of today, much as was the case with the Old Cold War of yesterday, one finds both great nations and small, and both state and non-state actors -- working together and/or separately -- but ALL acting so as to:

a. Prevent themselves from being "transformed" more along an "expansionist"/"universalist" foreign great nation's, alien and profane, political, economic, social and value lines. (Along Soviet/communist such lines in the Old Cold War of yesterday; along modern western such lines in the New/Reverse Cold War of today.) And to:

b. Prevent themselves from being "incorporated" more into these "expansionist"/"universalist" foreign great nation's sphere of power, influence and control. (Into the Soviet/the communists' such sphere of power, influence and control in the Old Cold War of yesterday; into the U.S./the West's such sphere of power, influence and control in the New/Reverse Cold War of today.)

Bottom Line:

Thus:

a. To "Balance Force Modernization and the Most Likely Future War (not "Wars") We Will be Fighting," one need only, I suggest,

b. Adopt the New/Reverse Cold War thesis that I have outlined above.

The only thesis which, I suggest, properly explains why -- both yesterday and today -- both great nations and small, and both state and non-state actors -- working together and/or separately -- might come to see themselves as being at "common cause" war with "expansionist"/"universalist" foreign great powers.

Thus "at war" with the Soviets/the communists during the Old Cold War of yesterday.

And, thus, similarly "at war" with the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today.

Thus to suggest that:

a. In accordance with this suggested proper, "one war," depiction of the current "conflict environment" (see my New/Reverse Cold War thesis above: a thesis which likewise seems to easily accommodate "gray zone," "hybrid warfare," "political warfare," "proxy war," "operations other than war," etc., aspects/characteristics of the current and future conflict environment), the U.S./the West must today:

b. Adopt a "force modernization" plan which accommodates the fighting of exactly such a "one war."

A "one war" concept and "force modernization" plan, thus, which readily acknowledges, as "enemies," not only both great nations and small, but also both state and non-state actors.

(Some of whom may act consciously together, and some of whom may not, some of whom may use direct confrontation, and some of whom may use other, many and varied, more subtle approaches; but all of whom, and indeed all of which, we should expect to have to confront simultaneously -- much as we are having to do today?)