The Missing Element in U.S. Military Modernization

The Missing Element in U.S. Military Modernization

David Booth

The political context of future conflicts will have a far greater impact on the conduct of war than current U.S. military modernization efforts reflect. The effects international actors will be able to achieve through non-lethal informational, political, cultural, and economic weapons will begin to overshadow the use of force. Paradoxically, U.S. military dominance incentivizes enemy and adversary states to pursue national interests with a minimal use of force so as not to provoke a military response. Because terrorists and insurgents violate laws of armed conflict and hide among civilian populations, the U.S. military can only employ a fraction of its power against them. Much of the current debate and theorizing about the future of war, however, focuses on the technological dimension of armed conflict. Advances in robotics, unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber capabilities certainly hold the potential to revolutionize modern warfare, not least in the sense that they profoundly challenge the effectiveness and reliability of current weapons systems, organizations, and doctrine. But the tactics and strategies used by America’s adversaries and enemies, despite deficits in military resources and technology, are not necessarily countered with conventional forms of military power. A greater emphasis on developing non-kinetic capabilities to complement or alleviate employment of military force will pay greater dividends than an over-reliance on technological innovations.

In the context of deterring war between great powers, and prevailing in the event, the high-tech modernization effort is necessary. Particularly for air and naval forces, technological advances that enable survivability, range, stealth, and lethality are crucial to prevailing in combat. The lack of great power, high-tech, information age warfare thus far creates an uncertainty regarding the outcome of such a conflict, generating a deterrent of its own. There must be political interests at stake important enough to risk the destruction of a nation’s expensive, advanced, and not quickly replaced military equipment. By favoring quality over quantity in the production of military hardware, militaries must properly calculate their technological advantage or risk disaster if enemy forces are able to exploit known or unknown vulnerabilities. There may not be time for new industrial production and mobilization. Whatever the outcome of a localized conflict among great powers, both sides retain nuclear and cyber weapons as a deterrent if national survival is at risk. Nevertheless, the possibility of future great power war must be weighed against the existing reality of comparatively low technology and non-lethal threats, whether emanating from great powers or non-state actors.                  

The high-tech modernization emphasis for U.S. ground forces is more problematic, mainly for the reason that the actual conflicts waged by the U.S. in the past 25 years could not have been won with more firepower. Instead, discrimination and precision in the use of force was more critical than firepower. The lethality of a weapon system cannot compensate when the local population is complicit in the placement of improvised explosive devices, for example. The current training regimen for U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams emphasizes a return to combined arms maneuver warfare in order to prepare for and deter conflict with a near-peer or regional adversary such as Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea. To prepare for such conflicts is rational and necessary, but the unfortunate corollary to the return to conventional warfare tactics is the overconfident assessment that the U.S. Army is sufficiently proficient in counterterrorism and contingency operations. This assessment may be valid at the tactical level, but the rise of the Islamic State after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the ongoing stalemate in Afghanistan, and the proliferation of jihadist networks should demonstrate that the U.S. military effort was ultimately inconclusive, and more importantly, that the broader war is not over.

While the U.S. military looks ahead to its high-tech conception of future warfare known as Multi-Domain Battle, the U.S. national security establishment as a whole has not offered a convincing approach to prevail in current conflicts. For those who dismiss the concept of 4th Generation Warfare as a simplistic and flawed interpretation of military history, there is at least some value in grappling with the challenges posed by the premise that non-material factors are beginning to dominate the modern battlefield. Our enemies often fight unconventionally and are motivated by ideology, as opposed to fighting conventionally for more narrow national interests. What the insurgents and jihadists lack in material resources, manpower, and technology, they compensate for with will, cultural and political knowledge, unconventional tactics, and brutality. They bypass U.S. strengths and exploit weaknesses, causing us to fight differently than we would prefer and had trained. Large-scale counterinsurgency efforts were effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, but were ultimately unsustainable primarily due to domestic political considerations and significant resource requirements. The current counterterrorism-special operations forces-drone strike approach is necessary, but is basically a containment strategy in need of a complementing counter-ideology campaign. Furthermore, near-peer adversaries, cautious of directly confronting U.S. military power, are actively pursuing efforts short of war to achieve political and economic objectives. Rather than confronting directly these unsettling aspects of current warfare, the defense establishment seems to prefer to prepare for high-tech conventional warfare while fully anticipating that the future force will operate in a “complex” world of “hybrid threats” that confound its technological advantages.

The fundamental political aspect of modern warfare that makes victory so elusive is that an enemy that doesn’t quit, surrender, or negotiate cannot be defeated except through extermination. The Western concept of war is heavily influenced by appeals to just war and honor. This “civilized” way of war was a cultural phenomenon whereby states formally declared war, fought conventionally, culminated their dispute in a decisive battle or series of battles, and then negotiated a treaty usually consisting of the ceding of land or treasure. A constant shifting of alliances was possible because states often calculated self-interest rather than fanatically pursued political ideologies. The experience of the 20th century should have thoroughly disabused Western military thinkers (and politicians) of this way of conceiving of warfare. Despite attempts to preserve a measure of humanity in war through the Geneva and Hague Conventions, and international treaties banning the use of biological and chemical agents, not all states or guerrilla fighters are willing to surrender the use of brutal tactics. Neither are they willing to surrender after losing manpower, territory, or senior leaders. The only ways to defeat such an enemy are to exterminate him, or so thoroughly undermine the idea motivating his struggle that he loses the will to fight, or at least cannot recruit others. The first approach is nearly impossible for practical reasons, not withstanding political, economic, and moral considerations. As for the second approach, how does the lethality of a tank, the stealth of a fighter jet, or a laser weapon on a destroyer engage with and destroy the idea of a Caliphate as proposed by the Islamic State? The jihadist ideology has demonstrated a remarkable resiliency over the past several decades, and will almost assuredly endure even after the likely fall of Raqqa.

Regardless of conventions concerning the laws of war, the only real restraint on the barbarity of modern war is its effect in the information (propaganda/psychological) battlespace. Brute force is very effective in a war of attrition among combatants, but when insurgents and counterinsurgents alike depend on the cooperation of the population, indiscriminate violence and collateral damage can prove counterproductive depending on its publicity. Jihadists recognize this as well, as evidenced by Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in 2005 imploring him to reduce excessive violence due to its detrimental impact on Muslim audiences. The international media, the internet, and social media allow belligerents to communicate verbally and through violence with the domestic audience of their enemy, as well as with sympathizers and potential recruits. Amid this level of scrutiny, every application of force carries the potential for exploitation in the information battlespace. This is not an argument for overly restrictive rules of engagement, but rather a proposal to elevate the information sphere to the level of key terrain. Such a shift in focus would require an abandonment of an excessive emphasis on metrics (casualties, territory, insurgent attacks, government security forces trained, etc.) to gauge progress.

An illustration of the U.S. military’s reluctant engagement in the information arena comes from Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since 2014. In 2015, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad conducted a poll revealing that as many as one third of Iraqis believed the U.S. supports terrorism or the Islamic State. When asked about this conspiracy theory, the military’s spokesman in Iraq claimed that the idea didn’t warrant a response, saying, “It’s beyond ridiculous.” Of course the notion of U.S. support for the Islamic State is absurd, but perceptions matter because they lead to action or inaction. The entire premise of the light U.S. military ground footprint supplemented with air strikes is that Iraqis will take the fight to the Islamic State and regain control of their country. This effort is undermined when Iraqis, fearing the barbarism of the Islamic State, are also suspicious that their “ally” is cynically playing both sides. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this episode is that the U.S. had the most important propaganda weapon on its side - the truth. In response to the conspiracy theory, the spokesman could have countered with evidence of U.S. efforts to aid Iraqis and target Islamic State fighters. Even after a dozen years of direct involvement in Iraq and the establishment of democratic institutions, it appears that far too many Iraqis still have little understanding of U.S. foundational values such as individual freedom, pluralism, and consent of the governed. If these values were understood, it would be obvious that U.S. support for the Islamic State is unfathomable.

To complement high-tech modernization efforts, there is a need for capabilities that allow the military to compete and achieve effects short of employing lethal force, and to capitalize on the use of force when necessary. These capabilities include activities such as information operations, training and assistance to indigenous forces, and political and economic manipulation. The U.S. Army is already expanding such a capability as it stands up Security Force Assistance Brigades to meet the demand for training foreign militaries. In comparison to well-developed theories, doctrines, tactics, and organizational structures for the employment of military force, the application of non-lethal influence techniques is much less developed within the armed forces. For an organization that commands an outsized share of resources within the national security domain, it is not sufficient for the military to specialize only in armed conflict. What is required is a significant investment in political and cultural expertise, language proficiency, new doctrine, and possibly changes in force structure and personnel management. It is much simpler, however, to develop proficiencies with combat systems that commanders can apply in combat almost anywhere in the world than it is to develop the political and cultural knowledge necessary to counter adversaries who may not present themselves on the field of battle, yet threaten the U.S. and our allies.

A way of developing these non-lethal capabilities, strategies, and tactics is to create a joint unit to study and create alternative approaches to disrupting, neutralizing, or defeating adversaries and enemies. Whereas conventional forces, and to an extent special forces, create plans to engage the enemy directly in battle, this new unit would seek alternative methods to achieve military or political objectives without force or with minimal force. This approach has the advantages of providing more options to counter adversary states with which we are not at war, and to confront non-state actors in a more economical way. Some of the proposals would require an interagency initiative, but other more tactical proposals could be executed by extant military units. If indeed the world is more complex than ever before, filled with hybrid threats and a multitude of interdependent actors, then perhaps a higher degree of regional or threat-based specialization is required to cope with this new reality. The new unit would develop such specialists and charge them with creating non-lethal tactics and strategies for specific threats, and not with simply informing or advising combat commanders based on their expertise.       

After several years of sequestration and more than a decade of sizable resource commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military appears eager to refocus on technological investments and combat system procurements to prepare to prevail in future wars. The danger is that they will create a force that is utterly dominant, yet potentially irrelevant except as a deterrent. This future force will inherently be designed to operate in a world of dichotomies - war and peace, soldier and civilian, lawful and unlawful. Meanwhile, less-advanced adversaries will continue to pursue their interests effectively without resort to large-scale military confrontations. An underdevelopment of capabilities and strategies to compete outside of the realm of the application or threat of force will only make war more likely.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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