(This is the final installment in a three part series. Parts I and II discussed how "fighting them over there" became the American way of war, and how it has turned into a broken paradigm. Part III examines the strengths and limitations of today's U.S. power projection force structure.)
Despite what young Mister Bush and the neoconservative echo choir keep telling you, the oceans actually do still protect America and "they" can't actually follow us "over here." Nobody has an army big enough to invade and occupy the U.S. or a navy large enough to transport an army that size, and even if somebody did, we could put their army and navy on the bottom of the ocean before it got halfway across.
Here, There and Everywhere
Yes, America is vulnerable to long-range ballistic missiles and to terrorists and other evildoers who sneak across the borders, but that's been true for quite some time, and those aren't the kinds of threats we can counter with conventional military force.
U.S. conventional forces are designed to operate overseas, either as permanently forward deployed enclaves like the ones we have in Europe and Asia or as home based expeditionary forces that can deploy forward from the U.S. in both peacetime and wartime. This combination of enclave and expeditionary forces gives America an unprecedented capability to deter or fight wars in virtually any strategic corner of the globe.
With notable exceptions like Vietnam, this scheme worked out fairly well for us in the post-World War II era until the Bush administration waltzed out its Preemptive Self-Defense doctrine. Any time you commit expeditionary forces to overseas wars, you upset their normal deployment, training and equipment maintenance cycles. When you start fighting optional wars, you're exacerbating the situation, especially when a war planned to last three months stretches beyond three years. Thus it is that while the 140,000-something troops in Iraq are only a small percentage of the total force strength, the Iraq misadventure has stretched our land power services thin, if not to the breaking point. You have to rotate troops in and out of the theater of war to keep from wearing them out, and you still have to maintain the strategic enclaves elsewhere.
Home and Away
As a global power projection force, you have to be ready to fight anywhere, any time and at whatever conditions exist at the scene of the fight. None of America's active or potential military adversaries have to do that. They only have to project significant conventional force a limited distance from their borders and shores, so they only have to equip and train to a finite set of combat operations, and their logistics requirements are relatively simple.
Limiting their military operations to home field also gives U.S. adversaries an inherent asymmetric advantage. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have seen how loosely organized, low-tech guerilla forces can kneecap a highly evolved land force, but asymmetric dynamics also occur in air and naval warfare.
You don't need a fleet of high tech fighter jets to counter air attacks. In fact, most of the "evil world" has gone to air defense postures that rely on lower cost, ground based anti-air artillery and burying the stuff they don't want bombed so deep that bombs can't get to it. And you don't need capital ships to whack an aircraft carrier if you can put it out of action with a coastal anti-ship missile battery that you can set up on the back of a dune buggy.
This, essentially, is the situation we'll face if we try to pop a can of spank on Iran, and when the smoke clears enough to let the sun through, there's a good chance that our sterns and tailpipes will shine a lot redder than theirs do.
Fighting Another Day
America's force grew into World War II through mass conscription and mobilization of the country's industry to produce machines of war. Today, we don't have time to build a force required to fight any given conflict. Maintaining a large, ready professional force in peacetime not only profoundly affects our economy, it also dictates constraints on the types of wars we can fight.
Militarily, we could absorb a significant amount of attrition in World War II because we knew we would shrink the force back down at the end of the conflict. Now, we can only sustain a limited amount of attrition because the force that's fighting today's war may have to turn around and fight another one just like it tomorrow.
Thanks largely to the technology of our weapons and systems, we've managed to cut personnel combat casualties profoundly since World War II days. But like so many things in warfare, our advanced technology is a double-edged sword, a strength that is also a weakness. The more advanced the technology of any given "thing," the more the thing costs. The more the thing costs, the fewer things you can afford to have, and the less you can afford to lose them. And the longer you expose the things to a combat environment, the more of them you stand to lose--either to cheaper, lower tech counter measures, accidents, or plain old wear and tear.
The biggest factor in personnel attrition these days is retention. The vast majority of the guys drafted for the duration of World War II had no interest in making a career of the military, knew that the war wouldn't last indefinitely, and knew that when it was over, they would go home.
In order to maintain a standing professional force like the one we have now, you need to keep enough of your best enlisted and officer personnel around long enough to make a vocation out of it. If your best and brightest and most dedicated people spend three or four years in a theater of war in their early service lives, they'll start asking themselves, "How many times will I have to do this if I stay in for twenty years or more?" Too many of your best and brightest will walk out the main gate at the earliest opportunity to pursue normal lives, and down the line you'll wind up with a "professional" corps of senior noncoms and officers who aren't the best, are less than bright, and no sane person's idea of "normal."
Which, by the way, is pretty much how the force we were left with after Vietnam looked.
When's It "Over" Over There?
Unlike World War II, today's armed conflicts don't begin with formal declarations or terminate in choreographed surrender ceremonies aboard the decks of battleships. Now, "losing" is not option, "victory" cannot be defined and the "enemy" is all but impossible to identify.
When hegemonic America goes to war, unless it has a very clear end-state strategy, it will be embroiled in that war for a long, long time. And our present strategic situation once again proves the wisdom of the ancient Chinese General Sun Tzu's admonition that "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare."
There may also be no instance of an empire that didn't fail to learn that the military power that established it was not sufficient to sustain it. It pains me no end to point this out, but the military might that brought America victory in the Great War, the Good War, and the Cold War failed to defend us from the 9/11 attacks, is not accomplishing our strategic objectives overseas, and has not made us safer at home.
As I've described it before, our current strategic situation is a goat rope tied in Gordian knots and wrapped around a Moebius strip. The debate over what America's proper force structure should be will go on until brown cows give chocolate milk, but I firmly believe that the real solution to our conundrum is enlightened leadership--the kind of leadership that understands that while armed force is a vital tool of national power, its ability to achieve the strategic aims of a sole global superpower is profoundly limited.
Sometimes "fighting them over there" accomplishes little more that giving "them" an opportunity to give you a bloody nose.
You can't lose your front teeth in a bar fight if you stay away from the bar.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.