USAF aircraft of the 4th Fighter Wing fly over Kuwaiti oil fires, set by the retreating Iraqi army during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

USAF aircraft of the 4th Fighter Wing fly over Kuwaiti oil fires, set by the retreating Iraqi army during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Pictures From History / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Pentagon has been learning the wrong lessons for three decades

The Gulf War sowed the seeds of future defeat. We must uproot them—and urgently.

The lightning-fast victory of the U.S. military over the Iraqi Army in the early 1990s marked a generational turning point for warfare, with the predominant lesson being that exquisite and precise munitions were the key to winning future conflicts. This fit a narrative that many desperately wanted at that time: namely, that we could spend less money, have fewer forces, and turn warfare into a targeting exercise by overwhelming the enemy with precise, short-burst barrages driven by top-down decision-making, all enabled by the digital revolution.

The lessons our senior officials learned from the conflict encapsulated this narrative: spend more to get less, wars can be short with limited casualties, and policymakers can use technology to control from afar. These lessons made their way into military parlance, neatly tied up into concepts like revolution in military affairsshock and awe, and effects-based operations.

Recent wars have provided, to borrow a phrase from former Vice President Gore, an “inconvenient truth”: the United States military establishment may have fallen into the victor’s trap and assumed away the problems and challenges of future warfare. From Somalia in 1993, to nearly twenty years in Iraq and Afghanistan, to today’s wars in Ukraine and Israel, it’s becoming apparent that the United States may have built the entirely wrong war machine needed for the 21st century.  

With a thirty-year, all-in bet on smaller, exquisite, and expensive forces whose flaws have been concealed by rosy policy assumptions such as we would only fight one short, high-tech war, now may be the time to reevaluate three key characteristics of force design. The uniformed military leadership, led by the official who by statute has the authority to set requirements for the military—the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—should act now to embed these three key reforms into the Joint Requirements Process.

The first is that we can no longer build weapons at scale. Our magazines are routinely depleted as wars defy the assumption that they will be short or only occur in sequence. With policy pushing for ever more technologically advanced systems, we forgot that we actually have to build them. One bright point within DOD is the call for drones as part of DOD’s Replicator initiative. If the Pentagon successfully fields drones at the scale and condensed timeframes put forth by the initiative, then it could act as a path forward for future weapons design. But we shouldn’t wait to find out. Therefore, the first reform should be a requirement that weapons be “designed to be manufactured at scale.”  

The second characteristic of force design is that the technological revolution that we saw in the 1990s led to a “bottom-up” revolution, but DOD instead has forced itself into believing it was a “top-down” revolution. Small groups have used technology from both the commercial and military sectors to become super-empowered, yet DOD has failed to deliver anything nearly as potent to its own troops. ISIS, for example, was using the Internet to wage war more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, DOD’s all-but-broken information-technology system  is set up to drive decisions down into the formation rather than enabling innovation at the lowest levels. The rare counterexample, such as the Army’s IVAS system, only underscores how much is going undeveloped. To reverse the flow of innovation in DOD today, and make it move from bottom to top, a new requirement is again in order. Our military leaders should mandate that all information-technology solutions start with the user and then roll up—exactly the opposite of what’s in place today.

The third characteristic is that mass matters. We now have the smallest active-duty Army since World War II and the Navy and Air Force are shrinking rapidly. Operation concepts for a light Joint Force doesn’t stack up well against the realities of warfare we’re witnessing today. The Russians are holding territory because they can marshal more resources. Israel has mobilized its population to fight. Broadly speaking, we are seeing a reversion to early 20th-century warfare in the first quarter of the 21st century. We ignore these realities at our own peril, especially as trouble brews in yet another theater as China pursues a military modernization and buildup.

To put mass at the core of how the military plans and thinks about the next war, DOD should do as my colleague Mackenzie Eaglen has stated: bring back “mass and attrition as foundational force planning principles.” That will require uniformed military leaders to embed in the Joint Requirements Process a requirement that the U.S. maintain a force-sizing construct which provides the depth of mass for fighting multiple wars with the staying power for an intense multi-year war. Civilian leaders within DOD have taken it upon themselves to dictate the force-sizing construct in order to fit their agenda. They change their assumptions to meet the budget constraints they want, forcing uniformed leaders to state that they have the forces they need to meet the strategy. At this point, when it comes to the size of our military, there are simply no bright spots: the forces keep shrinking and barring action, will continue to do so. 

The single most important task assigned to the federal government in our Constitution is providing for the common defense. With policies and strategies that call for one short war at a time, divesting current procurement to invest at some future date in more technologically advanced weapons, and a shrinking military, it’s not hard to wonder why the proverbial person-on-the-street would ask what they are getting for the $850 billion-plus spent on defense each year. We must unlearn the lessons of the Gulf War and recognize that weapons must be able to be produced quickly at scale, that the size of the force matters, and that the technological revolution depends on a bottoms-up and not top-down architecture. 

As the lead of the Joint Requirements Process, only the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can fix this.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Ferrari is a senior nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. Ferrari previously served as a director of program analysis and evaluation for the Army.