Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Wednesday Preview: Fighting Them Over There (Part III)

(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.


  1. For the most part I agree with your comments, up until you start talking about evildoers countering air power.

    Air power certainly has its limitations. We learned that the hard way in Korea, where we bombed every single bridge and rail line in North Korea but the Chinese simply put their supplies into baskets on coolies' heads and humped them south the hard way. Same deal happened in Vietnam.

    But the fact of the matter is that you simply cannot counter air power with inexpensive easily-hidden ground based systems due to fundamental laws of physics. It takes a certain amount of energy to get a projectile from 0 altitude up to 10000 feet altitude, and it takes an additional amount of energy to, from there, catch up to and destroy an enemy aircraft. Thus all current SAM systems capable of intercepting and destroying aircraft at altitude are large and expensive affairs that typically require a sophisticated truck or silo in order to arm and target them, and because of the distance they must fly prior to reaching target, are relatively succeptible to enemy counter. Until you counter air power, you cannot engage in traditional warfare because enemy air power will immobilize your forces and allow them to be destroyed en detail by mobile enemy forces capable of concentration and maneuver. And if you can't engage in traditional warfare, you cannot extend the battle beyond your own well-prepared ground, or for that matter re-take ground currently held by the boots of the enemy as long as the boots of the enemy remain on that particular patch of ground. The best you can hope for, in this case, is that the enemy runs out of boots and bombs before you run out of territory for him to conquer and occupy.

    Of course, as you note, attritional warfare isn't something that current Western militaries are able to handle, and maintaining a large military sufficient to put enough boots on the ground to actually hold enemy territory until the last of the enemy has been killed and disarmed is not feasible due to various economic and political reasons. What that means is that, like Hizballah in Lebanon, using attritional strategies in the absence of an air power counter may bring a major power to its knees. However, lack of an air power counter decidedly limits the ability of any potential irregular enemy to undertake offensive actions against U.S. forces, other than the typical guerilla actions we are seeing in Iraq, which in and of themselves are insufficient to be more than a nuisance to the occupation forces.


  2. BT,

    I agree with much of what you say here, sort of agree with much else, and disagree on a point or two.

    A lot of the counter-air problem is dependent on how the rest of any given conflict looks. If you're being attacked on the ground and from the air, you've got a serious problem because, as you point out, enemy air (at least U.S. enemy air) will keep your ground troops pinned down. That's where some of us airpower types argue that despite what Air Force types tend to argue, the best application of air power is direct and indirect support of ground forces.

    As to the efficacy of AAA, I don't know where to find the exact figures now, but all the data gathered since WWII indicates that the vast majority of U.S. air losses came at the hands of AAA, not enemy Defensive Counter Air fighters.

    A reason we see fewer and fewer fighters in adversary air defense systems is that there's so little bang for the buck--lots of money to buy and maintain fighters and to train their pilots for very little return. Hence the heavier reliance on AAA.

    Now, when you're talking air defense, you're talking air defense against U.S. forces and air defense against everybody else. We're pretty darn good at taking out, or at least neutralizing air defense systems.

    As to protecting the stuff you don't want bombed (again, if you're defending against U.S. airpower), decoys and deep bunkers have proven pretty effective in recent air wars.

    Of course, any time you're fighting U.S. air power, you're not going to "defeat" it, per se. The best you can do is thwart it from achieving its objectives, which I'd say are often hard to determine, even if you have access to all of the operations orders.

    As for "strategic bombing alone," does it ever work? I'd say "shock and awe" was pretty effective at defeating the Japanese, but delivery of the bombs on the two cities came at the end of a very long and bloody joint attrition warfare.

    On irregular forces--the irregulars in Iraq have little or no air defense capability, but that I wouldn't say it's hindering them, nor would I say that they're merely a nuisance to U.S. occupation forces. If our present objective is really to create an independent, stable Iraq capable of defending itself, I'd say the guerillas are doing a bang up job (no pun intended) of thwarting that objective.

    (FWIW, I think that strategically, a "stable" Iraq is at best an enabling objective, or a decisive point, if you will, to achieve the ultimate aim of controlling the energy supply.)

    I appreciate you stopping by and posting such a detailed and thought provoking comment. Look forward to further discussing these issues in the future.

  3. Stephen King in his book On Writing states something like: "adverbs are not your friends."

    Which is not to say that I care so much what Stephen King says, but I think it is a good point. You "firmly believe" and aims are "profoundly limited." Do these "ly's" help? If you believe something, that's good enough for me. It does not need to be firmly. In fact, you don't even need to state that an opinion is an opinion. I firmly believe I can identify an opinion in a political blog.

    I have read (some) Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. It would be interesting to hear about other more obscure theorists that you find worthwhile.

  4. I thought King's book was pretty good. I think his admonition was about modifiers in general. That's pretty good advice, but I don't think its reason not to use them. If I think "firmly believe" and "profoundly limited" convey my meaning better that "believe" or "limited," I'll use the ads.

    Jomini is interesting, as is Moltke the Elder. Liddel Hart is another interesting theorist, as is Mahan. Those guys are hardly obscure, but usually only known to military types or others with some kind of war college/political science kind of background.

    As to contemporary types, Fred Kagan of West Point is pretty good (although he's a card carrying neocon), and Milan Vego of the Naval War College is "Mister Operational Art." If you can ever find a copy of his OPERATIONAL WARFARE, its worth picking up.

    If you ask any twelve warfare "experts" a question on the subject, you'll get twelve different answers. For the most part, I don't subscribe to any one philosophy, but generally agree with most of Vego has to say, at least in general theory.

    I studied under Vego at NWC, and later found most of what he taught very useful in tactical and operational planning.

    I hope that information was of some help.

    Oh, of the military correspondents with the big papers, Tom Ricks is my hands-down favorite. His analysis of the problems with the Iraq war are, by and large, spot on.