Insights from Ukraine for a Post-Modern US Military
By Matt Golsteyn
Among the many reasons the Ukrainian conflict captured our collective attention, the fact that it features the first head-to-head matchup between militaries of the post-modern era is one of them. The display of new military technologies on a scale not seen since the Gulf War is another. So far, the evolution of the conflict bears bad omens for the post-modern orthodoxy in the Pentagon.
How so? Two points.
First, the Russian military’s performance casts a long shadow over the return on technology investment for the U.S. model in conventional war. This model promises greater lethality while minimizing human costs when substituting advanced technologies, along with the massive logistical and bureaucratic infrastructure necessary for supporting it, for the plain jane, unskilled combat specialties that made post-WWII militaries large and unwieldy. For a sense of scale, the substitution of technology for combat formations has shrunk the current active-duty strength of U.S. Army to roughly 1/7th and 1/4th of that during Vietnam and the Gulf Wars respectively.
The military structure created by this model is quite fragile as the modernized Russian military has become acutely aware. The Russian military, second only to the U.S. as the most powerful force on the globe lost their ability to conduct offensive operations in weeks. Consider that, in the U.S. Army, tactical-level infantry formations represent nearly 90% of our casualties since WWII but compose only 4% of its roughly 500k active duty personnel. By extrapolation, the impact of losses is estimated at 45,000 on the invasion force of 190,000, which itself represents around 75% of Russia’s active ground forces, is staggering. Beyond the offense, Russian military leaders know they lost the capacity to effectively defend Russia against a NATO counterattack and this likely motivates Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation.
Many of the post-hoc rationalizations for the shocking outcome have merit. However, we should not be lulled into the belief that we are immunized from a similar fate in a conventional conflict with a near-peer. Like the Russians, the U.S. military does not have depth in its bullpen to stick with the game plan if its starting pitcher gets knocked out in the first inning.
Second, the brutality and destruction in Ukraine suggests future conflicts in the post-modern world are trending more primitive and intense than limited and modern. Accounts of indiscriminate, stomach-turning cruelty emerging from liberated areas across Ukraine appear to have been directed by Russian commanders and supported by genocidal narratives in Russian media. Russian operations in Ukraine are surging down the path of total war.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
A key axiom of the post-modern orthodoxy is that large-scale conventional conflicts between nation-states are constrained by the incentive structure of an emerging global order. They have zealously maintained that small-scale, limited wars and operations other than war, e.g., nation-building, counterinsurgency, and humanitarian assistance were our destiny. Russia appears unconstrained by its obligations as a signatory to Protocol I of the Geneva Convention and undeterred by increasing exclusion from global commerce. We should expect China to behave similarly if it invades Taiwan.
Our strategy must reflect how the world is and not how we would like it to be.
By assuming we share the same incentive structure with the other players in the game, we are making the same mistake with Russia that we made in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the world of carrots and sticks, the U.S. military should always be viewed as a stick capable of delivering the appropriate message to each of our adversaries in the way they understand it best. If Russia needs to be expelled from Ukraine or China from Taiwan, it most certainly will not feature what Admiral Stavridis (ret.) called the ‘new tactical triad’ of special forces, unmanned systems, and cyber as the main effort.
Over the last two decades, the National Defense Strategy, has moved away from a U.S. military expected to simultaneously fight and win two major theater conflicts to a posture of regional deterrence and homeland defense. I suspect our inability to commit ground forces to conflicts on the European and Asian continents is a major factor in China’s support for Russia.
A productive first step would be to think about technology as a complement, vis-à-vis a substitute, for the necessity to send large numbers of young men to engage in violent close combat with the enemy.
The key question is whether DOD, as an institution, can commit to the type of critical thinking that produces relevant conclusions or, will it remain an echo chamber for the established views of the post-modern orthodoxy in the Pentagon?