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A New Paradigm in War

The concept is simple. Its implications are not. And a lot of people at the Pentagon, especially along the Army corridors, just wish it would go away.
Here’s the non-technical version, drawn in part from an Air Force briefing that’s been attracting attention within the Building and On the Road.

Americans believe – or like to believe, at any rate – that we should go to war only after some major and clearly outrageous attack: Pearl Harbor, the 1950 North Korean invasion of the south, Saddam Hussein’s assault on Kuwait. There are exceptions when a cumulation of lesser offenses provoked commitment; World War I comes to mind and, in a limited way, Vietnam. But the conventional wisdom has long held that the American people will not support serious conflict unless it starts in a certain way.

Throughout the Cold War, military strategy evolved accordingly. Korea, albeit unintentionally, set the pattern: absorb and contain a first strike, mass forces, then counterattack. Korea also established, again unintentionally, the principle that restoring the status quo ante, not conquering the aggressor, would be the strategic objective. NATO’s conventional plan for fighting the Soviets codified this approach: absorb, contain, build up for the counteroffensive, then attack and expel the enemy. Mercifully, this fantasy was never tested in Europe, but a variant worked rather nicely against Saddam Hussein, one of the more co-operative adversaries in the history of warfare.

Today, planning for Major Regional Conflicts (MRCs) and/or Major Theater Wars (MTWs) – there’s been an SOAAC (Semi-Officially Approved Acronym Change) recently – follows this pattern. Whether the United States can fight two “nearly simultaneous MRCs” or two MTWs in “overlapping time,” or even one with present forces available, may be debated. So may the whole “Let ’em hit first” approach. Still, for the moment, this is what we’ve got to work with. Can it be made to work?

The answer is, perhaps, but only if an understandable yet potentially deadly misconception is laid to rest.

The climactic phase of any war fought according to this scenario would be the counter-offensive. From this it seems to follow that the counter-offensive phase must also be the most important. That’s the misconception. In reality, the blocking and containing phase is the most important . . . and the most time-critical. This is especially true in the two locales deemed most likely to get MRCed: Korea (Seoul lies within artillery distance of the DMZ) and the Persian Gulf, with its vulnerable coastal oil fields. Failure to contain an enemy offensive within a few days could result in horrendous loss of life, property, and resources. Failure could also make the succeeding phases of buildup and counter-attack prohibitively costly, perhaps even impossible.

But how to contain a massive land assault in an era of dwindling overseas deployments and warning times that may be measured in days or hours?

The answer is – do it from the air, fast and furious, with an array of weapons ranging from heavy bombers land and tactical aircraft to cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions. Indeed, unless the United States is willing to move large ground forces to these areas months before a possible onset of hostilities, or use small forces as deterrent “tripwires” and hope for the best, containing an invasion by air is the only way to do it.

This concept – the primacy of containment via air power – leads to several corollaries.

First, given the time-criticality of the containment phase, more resources need to be devoted to air power.

Second, given that the build-up/counter-offensive phases may not be time-critical (they weren’t in Desert Storm), greater use may be made of reserve and National Guard forces. This calls into question the rationale for a large standing Army, only portions of which can deploy rapidly. Is there any real difference between an active Army brigade that can’t deploy for three months and a Guard brigade with an equivalent work-up time? There is. The active unit costs a whole lot more.

Third, since early-arriving ground forces will be necessary, active Army forces should emphasize lightness and transportability, but also battlefield mobility and lethality. This may entail fundamental restructuring and downsizing of active divisions. An old adage holds that strategic and battlefield mobility are incompatible. The force most easily moved long distances is not the force that has the vehicles, systems, and supporting “tail” it may need in sustained combat. Fortunately, all the new gadgetry coming into the system and under development may result in forces both light and lethal . . . provided the Army moves away from divisional structures more suited to World War II than 21st century operations.

Finally, if the containment phase is indeed the most critical, and if containment is executed with sufficient success, the ground counter-offensive becomes correspondingly less vital, perhaps even unnecessary. This means that the old notion of “jointness” – of air and sea forces inevitably and always supporting ground operations – may be too rigid. There is precedent for ground forces supporting air operations. In World War II, for example, Marines seized the Marianas and Iwo Jima as bases for the air offensive against Japan: a bombardment which ended the war without an invasion. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Army conducted ground operations against Egyptian SAM (surface-to-air) missile sites. And in Desert Storm, the ground offensive didn’t win the war. It finished it in 100 hours after a hundred day air war that – whatever recent revelations about the efficacy of certain systems – had engendered in the Iraqi Army to a certain passivity.

Yes, “boots on the ground” will (almost) always be necessary. But they’re no longer the only option for winning or finishing wars, especially those of the future. And without a seriously strengthened air combat capability, the day may come when it may not be possible to put “boots on the ground” at all.