Fighting the Last War That Never Happened

The U.S. military, along with the nation’s political class, is preparing for “great power competition.” This is simply a euphemism: America is getting ready for war with China. One important dimension of this preparation is a series of proposed changes to the equipment, training, and doctrine of our military.

The changes already underway are significant. The Marine Corps has dropped its entire armor capability to build budget space for a new missile force. The Army is seeking to add more missiles to its arsenal with an eye towards interdicting Chinese ships and attacking targets on the Chinese mainland. The Navy is adding unmanned aircraft and emphasizing “information dominance,” even as it struggles to maintain its existing fleet. The Air Force is continuing its perennial struggle to get rid of the A-10 in order to free up dollars for modern (and more expensive) strike aircraft like the F-35. 

A number of assumptions are driving these changes. Namely, transformation advocates say that the chief threat requires us to prepare for a conventional fight with China, which can be fought chiefly from the air and on the sea. Another assumption is that this would be a stand-off fight; there is little serious consideration given to invading China or even a portion of it. And, finally, nuclear weapons have been mostly dismissed as a major factor in the conflict. 

The Cold War Battle That Wasn’t

This idea of building up a high-tech conventional force is reminiscent of the latter part of the Cold War. In addition to a large nuclear arsenal, after Vietnam the United States amassed significant conventional forces in Europe, which prepared to do battle with the larger and heavily armed forces of the Warsaw Pact. This conventional buildup was designed to give NATO strategic flexibility that a purely nuclear deterrent would not allow. 

Lacking the numbers of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, the Cold War conventional arms race included numerous innovative weapons systems that acted as force multipliers. These were useful in a range of scenarios and include the M1 Abrams, the Apache Helicopter, the F-15 Eagle, and the Ticonderoga-class cruiser. 

The design of America’s Cold War conventional military was highly influenced by the fighting of World War II, with traditional weapons like tanks and destroyers augmented by modern sensors and information systems. The anticipated war would be one of maneuver, armored thrusts, and complex, combined-arms operations. 

In spite of the buildup, the conventional war with the Soviet Union never came. For this happy outcome, the promise of “mutually assured destruction” from each side’s nuclear arsenals deserves much of the credit. 

Even so, America’s conventional buildup was not completely wasted. American conventional forces proved to be versatile and were used successfully to obtain a massive victory against Iraq during Desert Storm. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. 

American power was at its peak. 

Predictions Nearly Lost the Korean War

A combination of moral decline and overly specific predictions about future wars can leave the nation unprepared for other types of conflict. After the war-ending use of atomic bombs in Japan, the American public embraced what Jeremy Hsu called the “atomic bomb myth.” “Instead of maintaining larger armed forces, the United States trusted its initial monopoly on nuclear power and Air Force bombers as a counterbalance to the large Soviet armies at the start of the Cold War. . . . The atomic bomb myth meant the understrength, poorly-trained and badly-equipped U.S. Army units would pay a high price in blood during the early months of the Korean War.” 

While the United States undertook a great power conflict with the Soviet Union after World War II, the Pentagon had planned for a total war in the form of a nuclear exchange. The advent of the atomic bomb appeared to make conventional military forces obsolete. Training, equipment, and morale all suffered under this false premise. 

After America planned for one kind of war—high-tech, nuclear, and push-button—the more traditional kind materialized in Korea. As T. R. Fehrenbach observed in his famous study, This Kind of War, “A ‘modern’ infantry may ride sky vehicles into combat, fire and sense its weapons through instrumentation, employ devices of frightening lethality in the future—but it must also be old-fashioned enough to be iron-hard, poised for instant obedience, and prepared to die in the mud.” 

A decade later, in Vietnam, Americans fought still another type of war for which its forces were not well-equipped or prepared: a counterinsurgency. In the decades after World War II, in spite of planning to fight either a nuclear war or a large conventional war, such low-intensity conflicts associated with national liberation movements predominated.

The Last ‘Near-Peer’ Competitor Fought Through Proxies

Current plans for war with China presuppose China would confront the United States head-on, and that such a conflict would be confined to conventional weapons. Thus, high-tech, expensive, missile-heavy plans loom large for every branch of the military. These weapons, if successful, would permit degradation and area-denial of Chinese forces while minimizing American casualties.

The China conflict model is an updated variation on the Cold War European battle of Pentagon analysts’ imagination—a conflict that never actually took place—along with the Gulf War myth of a “push-button war” conducted solely behind electronic consoles. 

Lacking an historical precedent, this model deserves a lot of scrutiny. After all, while there was significant friction between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, almost all of the conflicts between the two superpowers took place through proxies rather than in direct battle. 

Instead of a clash of armor in Central Europe, there were smaller fights in Korea, Vietnam, Central America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Having planned to confront a different enemy under different conditions, America’s large conventional forces were not properly trained or equipped to fight these low-intensity conflicts. 

Most of the Cold War’s subsidiary conflicts, like the ongoing War on Terrorism, matched indigenous guerilla forces against Western-supported government forces, where light infantry and special forces proved to be the most relevant. In Vietnam, technology was relevant—including emerging technologies like night vision and helicopters—but large swaths of armor and mechanized equipment chiefly relevant for a war in Europe were kept stateside. “Obsolete” weapons, like the A-1 Skyraider, often proved more effective than the latest technology. 

Even stipulating that competition and conflict with China is inevitable, it does not follow that such conflict will be a head-to-head, conventional clash. Such conflicts are risky and expensive for both sides. Other possibilities exist, including China supporting insurgents among our neighbors, undermining the U.S. ability to maintain basing in China’s periphery through diplomacy, or measures that exploit our nation’s distaste for economic pain and impatience with inconclusive counterinsurgency conflicts. 

Why Not Hedge?

This leads to the last concern. While China is no doubt a serious power, and its interests are often averse to our country’s, there are many other countries in the world with which we could find ourselves in conflict. The American military of the 1950s and 1960s did not plan to fight Koreans and Vietnamese. Nor did it plan to be involved, as it actually was, in conflicts in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Libya, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. Certainly, none of our defense apparatus was geared toward al-Qaeda’s surprise attack the morning of September 11, 2001. 

While generals are sometimes accused of “fighting the last war,” it turns out to be very hard to predict what a future war will look like. In Korea, the war resembled the conventional aspects of World War II, in spite of the predicted obsolescence of conventional forces because of nuclear weapons. In Vietnam, Americans fought a counterinsurgency, after preparing for a high-intensity conflict in Europe. In Iraq, the United States fought a fully conventional conflict both in the First Gulf War and the opening phase of the 2003 campaign, but then found itself fighting a many-sided counterinsurgency, where American forces became bogged down. 

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” There is value in adding capabilities with long-range fires, naval denial, and other weapons and tactics currently being explored by every branch of the military. But going “all in” on a very specific predicted conflict with China is not wise foresight, so much as hubris. There are ample historical cases where doing exactly this ended in disaster. 

Abandoning traditional conventional forces (like artillery, tanks, and infantry) to invest in high-tech, long-range missiles and other weapons only usable in a certain type of full-scale war with China would deprive the United States of the flexibility and forces to respond to the predictably unpredictable contingencies that frequently arise. Whether this takes the form of a failed state in Mexico, a terrorist training camp in Malaysia or a Chinese-supported insurgency in some area of interest remains to be seen. 

The post-World War II state of the American military provides an important warning. After a long and costly war, distaste for military discipline, budget pressures, and domestic political fighting undermined training and preparedness. Overreliance on technology became especially attractive to civilian political leaders seeking to undermine the privileged position and mammoth scale the military accrued during World War II. Like the drawdown of America’s military following that war, the current modernization effort could leave our forces under-equipped and undertrained if it comes at the expense of core existing military capabilities. In such a case, our armed forces will be ready for everything but the war they actually have to fight. 

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

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