The 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, received 29 M1A2 Abrams tanks, Sept. 26, 2014, at Fort Hood, Texas.

The 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, received 29 M1A2 Abrams tanks, Sept. 26, 2014, at Fort Hood, Texas. U.S. Army

The Military We Have Vs. The Military We Need

We only pretend to build armed forces to confront the threats we face.

“Disruptive change” is probably the most rhetorically popular, yet intellectually vacuous, turn of phrase now in use throughout the U.S. defense establishment. For an inherently conservative, parochial institution whose conception of the future is dominated by its preference for a canonical past, disruptive change is an attractive meme meant to convey progressive imagery to audiences inside and outside who might otherwise be inclined to expose the institution’s well-established lack of imagination and originality. 

What is seen as the blueprint for disruptive change is the National Defense Strategy, or NDS, promulgated by the Trump administration’s first Defense Secretary, James Mattis, and his Marine brother in arms, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford. Together, they passed this ideological tract off as a legitimate strategy based on bona fide strategic thinking to indoctrinate the defense establishment and its bureaucratic and political disciples. Their successors and their successors’ subordinates have unquestioningly and unthinkingly endorsed the stultifying received truths of the document, so much so that any thought of meaningful transformative change within the institution, however much needed, seems frustratingly out of the question in the absence of some jolt to the system.

The NDS — here’s the unclassified summary — epitomizes the intellectual stagnation that pervades the military. It is predicated on the asserted “truths” that:

  • The U.S. military, in the years preceding the Trump administration, was emasculated and rendered largely impotent by forcing it to focus on frivolous, tangential threats and missions such as countering violent extremism.
  • The United States has been disadvantaged and is in danger of being unseated from its rightful position of primacy in all domains of warfare – land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace – by reformist powers bent on challenging U.S. global supremacy.
  • The world we face today and in the years ahead is defined by great-power competition (presumably involving the use of traditional, military-centered great-power means to achieve traditional great-power ends of superiority and dominance).
  • To properly compete in this great-power arena, our organizational, doctrinal, and technological emphases must be based, above all else, on “lethality” (meaning, by implication, killing power and destructive capacity fed by large-scale industrial innovation and sustained by big-war mobilization measures).

How woefully and dangerously outmoded, outdated, self-serving, self-deluding, and self-perpetuating such received truths are. This is Cold War redivivus; Old War become New War. One need only compare the rhetoric of misuse associated with the wars we conduct that don’t coincide with our idealized conception of war – be it Vietnam or the Global War on Terrorism – with the reality of the methods we use and the defense posture we maintain to prosecute such wars. And one need only compare great-power, big-war rhetoric with the realities today of pandemic disease, cyberattacks, climate-induced natural disasters, and violent, rogue-actor extremism. 

We live today in a postmodern age defined, as with all conceptions of postmodernism, by irony and the need for fundamental redefinition of hallowed concepts and terms. Ironically speaking, old strengths (such as wealth, size, and population) have become new weaknesses; old advantages (such as technological superiority or expansive overseas presence) have become new disadvantages; old successes (like the end of the Cold War) have become new failures; old friends have become new enemies; and old forms of plenty (e.g., nuclear supremacy) have become new forms of scarcity (e.g., nuclear peace). Terms of reference once considered clear, immutable, and sacrosanct – war, peace, security, aggression, intervention, sovereignty, power – now beg for redefinition.

In the grand evolution of war in which we are unsuspectingly involved, we have passed from a deep historical period of “Hot War” dating to antiquity, in which the use of military force was the central element in the conduct of statecraft; to the prolonged period of Cold War familiar to us all, in which the non-use of force (at least against our principal adversary, the Soviet Union), and the attendant avoidance of large-scale war, was the defining element; to the present period of “New War,” in which the use of non-military power and non-traditional uses of the military are – or, to be more accurate, should be – at the heart of statecraft; to a yet-to-be-recognized, much less realized, period of “No War,” the normative strategic end-state we should be seeking, in which militaries as we have known them become essentially irrelevant. To reach such an idealized – many would say unrealistic and unrealizable – end-state, arguably will require as preconditions the attainment of denuclearization, delethalization, and ultimately demilitarization. Demilitarization can be brought about only by the military: not a militaristic military committed to the supernal mission of warfighting, but a military organized, equipped, trained, and deployed in dramatically new ways that redefine what militaries properly do.

Related: How 'Great-Power Competition' Became Washington's Favorite Frame

Related: How to Get the National Defense Strategy Out of Its Mideast Rut

If we were to have a truly healthy state of civil-military relations, which we don’t, two of its cardinal defining elements would be a strategically effective (not just a militarily effective) military and a properly subordinated military-industrial complex that supports rather than dictates our military posture. In fact, in the cosmic international pecking order that differentiates superpowers from great powers, great powers from major powers, and major powers from minor powers, the possession of a strategically effective military is one of the principal indicators of standing and status. By any measure, the military we have today not only isn’t strategically effective, it isn’t even militarily effective. We don’t win wars. We don’t prevent wars. We certainly don’t eliminate wars. But we do feed escalation, provocation, and mirror imaging. Even if we were to claim a militarily effective military, we would have no choice but to admit that its defining features are all the things a truly strategically effective military wouldn’t be: disproportionately destructive, indiscriminately lethal, exorbitantly expensive, overly provocative and escalatory, unduly consumptive, largely alienated from society, and environmentally damaging.

At root, our problem derives from our prevailing frame of reference: Defense, narrowly conceived, dominates security, broadly conceived. Military power dominates non-military power. Wars of choice dominate wars of necessity, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. Tactics dominates strategy. Unilateralism (and the attendant felt need for self-sufficiency) dominates multilateralism (with the attendant imperative for collective decision-making and action). Conventional, high-intensity capabilities dominate unconventional, low-intensity capabilities. Technology dominates doctrine and force structure, and high technology dominates appropriate technology. Means dominate ends. And, finally, logistics dominates operations, after all is said and done.

Although we pretend to orient and structure our military around the threats we face, in point of fact our approach is very much capabilities-based; we have the military we want, and we insist on imposing that preferred force on the situations we face, invariably with unsatisfactory results. The ideal would be a state of affairs in which recognized vulnerabilities determine what our interests are; interests would determine what circumstances and actors constitute threats; those threats would be the basis for determining requirements; and those requirements would dictate the capabilities we seek to have on hand. In practice, the reality is just the opposite; our preferred capabilities determine everything else.

While we persist in the pursuit of capabilities for competing in a great-power world that satisfies our hunger for the heaviest, most expensive, most destructive and lethal armaments in the world, and that mollifies industrial actors that provide jobs and contribute big bucks to politicians, the threats we actually face today demand something quite different. The wars we face today are entirely wars of choice. No existing conflict, nor any reasonably to be anticipated, demands our involvement. And the wars we face are far removed from the total wars of the distant past and even farther removed from an idealized state of stable peace we have yet to seriously pursue, much less achieve. No, our wars occupy the space between limited war and violent peace; and the prime defining characteristics of these wars are twofold: they are asymmetric, hybrid wars; and, as such, they are inherently unwinnable.

So, pandemics, natural disasters, cyberattacks, and random acts of violent extremism are very real, very serious, very deadly, and very demanding. They are the threats we face and will continue to face in perpetuity. Traditional wars against China and Russia are unrealistic, highly unlikely fantasy. China and Russia, if they are to oppose us, will do so asymmetrically, as they already are; not symmetrically in a manner that would justify and legitimize our misplaced preparations and capabilities. Do we prepare for the most serious wars we won’t face or the most likely “wars” we will face? The answer should be more obvious than it is: not the former, but the latter.

To cope effectively with the actual threats that confront us, we must decide, for starters, what the military’s role properly ought to be: to serve itself (in the manner of a self-interested interest group); to serve the regime in power; to serve the state; or to serve society and even humanity (as grandiose as that might sound)? And no less must we decide what the military’s proper function ought to be: to prepare for and wage war; to secure and preserve peace; or something in between, like providing for the common defense, or preventing war, or providing for security? “All of the above” is too vague an answer, and “they’re all the same” is too simplistic. A military whose raison d’être is preparing for and waging war – the military we have – is demonstrably different from one that seeks to secure and preserve peace – the one we need.

The military we have is heavy, destructive, lethal, blunt, combat-oriented, technology-dominant, general purpose, unilaterally capable, provocative, escalatory, expensive (gluttonously so), and unsustainable. It is basically a hard-power warfighting machine, totally captive of and obsessed with its own warfighting/warfighter verbiage, useful primarily for tacit threatmaking based on ostensibly superior capabilities, and prepared – arguably – only for traditional, conventional war (even though deployed for a variety of missions). 

The military we need would be quite the opposite: light, constructive, predominantly nonlethal, precise, noncombat-oriented, manpower-dominant, tailored, multilaterally-capable/-dependent, reassuring, de-escalatory, affordable, and sustainable. It would be a strategically effective force, designed to respond to a robust array of complex, most-frequently-occurring emergencies – peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian assistance, disaster response – that ultimately contribute most demonstrably to the overarching normative strategic aim of enduring global peace.

Should such sweeping, transformative overhaul ever become a reality? Yes – if peace is actually our ultimate aim. Could it take place? Unlikely – given the intellectual shortcomings of the defense establishment in particular, and the national security community in general. These are heretical, heterodox ideas that can take root and be acted upon only as an outgrowth of new thinking that is in inexcusably short supply in government and think tank thought factories. In the final analysis, though, the military will have to take the lead – and want to take the lead – in dramatically reforming itself because politicians have major vested interests, political and economic, in preserving the status quo and in letting the military dictate its own fate. Whether the military has the intellectual wherewithal to measure up to such a challenge is a matter for high hopes, but measured expectations. But if we are to produce a future that is better than the past, we shouldn’t give up on hope.