The Future of War
“We have tried since the birth of our nation to promote our love of peace by a display of weakness. This course has failed us utterly.” –Gen. George C. Marshall, 1945
War remains, as a Prussian general defined it nearly two centuries ago, the use of force to compel the enemy to do your will. Strategy connects ways and means to achieve an objective. The basics of strategy apply to war whether regular, irregular, guerrilla warfare, nuclear war, or insurgency. Terrorism is a tool. It can underlay strategy but it also involves applying ways and means to achieve a goal. The same can be said for counter-terrorism. Victory depends on strategy. An inappropriate strategy cannot be redeemed by heroism, effusive bloodletting, or abundant force.
Since the American Civil War, the United States has excelled at warfare by bringing overwhelming power to bear in clearly defined campaigns where strategy reflects and implements policy. More complicated conflicts such as Vietnam and the current “war on terror” are troublesome because our enormous technological and material advantages seemingly obviate the need for in-depth strategic analysis. Additionally, the separation of policymakers from military leaders discourages the dialogue needed to obtain what President Ronald Reagan brought to fruition by clearly identifying the “Evil Empire” and corralling Congress to fund a military buildup the Soviets could not match.
In the 21st century the United States must prepare for three kinds of warfare: Standoff war, Hands-on war, and Cyber war. Each presents unique challenges but the strategic approach of tying policy to desired outcome generally applies. Get that wrong and we lose.
Standoff war involves major powers. Armies, air forces, and navies will clash. Controlling space matters. The threat of nuclear holocaust is real. Losers will pay a heavy price. Deterrence is key but that requires strategic acumen as well as heavy economic investment. The challenge for the United States is to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, invest in missile defense, and maintain air, sea and land forces second to none.
Hands-on war involves irregular warfare, insurgency, and terrorism. The goal is to control people. Intelligence is key. If the people feel they can be defended and protected, then intelligence is easier because the populace will abandon insurgents and terrorists forcing them underground or into complex terrain away from population centers where military force can be applied effectively. Public support isolates terrorists and insurgents.
Culture and ideology coincide in Hands-on war. Failure to grasp the true nature of the conflict makes it difficult to devise an appropriate strategy. These wars are won and lost in the minds of people. Religious factors are extremely important. The United States is in its 14th year of a religious war with Islamic radicals. Failure to recognize the true nature of this war makes devising an appropriate strategy nearly impossible.
Speed can be more important than strength and since Americans are not fond of long wars, time favors insurgents and terrorists. Fighters driven by religious fanaticism are literally dying to win both ideologically and physically. Looking back at Vietnam, a Hands-on war, public disenchantment with the war erupted in 1968, seven years after JFK drew a line in the sand in South Vietnam.
Cyber war presents unique challenges. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Michael Dempsey, in a Fox News interview with reporter Chris Wallace, stated the United States is unprepared for cyber warfare because it levels the playing field. Major powers, rogue states like Iran and North Korea, and terrorist groups can get involved.
Interesting food for thought: What would be the appropriate strategic response to a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” that might not kill anyone immediately but impoverish millions of Americans by destroying our banking systems?
Even more daunting is the threat posed by an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack. A limited number of nuclear detonations in the upper atmosphere could devastate the United States. China and Russia are capable of carrying out such an attack. North Korea and a nuclear capable Iran could do so relatively soon. Our technologically advanced society is extremely vulnerable. Electrical power grids would crash, conceivably for extended periods. Personal computers would be useless. Automobiles rife with microchip technology might not start. Even if they did, when gas tanks empty there would be no way to refill because gas pumps wouldn’t work; credit and debit cards would be useless. Public services like water, sewerage and garbage collection ends. Typhoid, typhus, and cholera epidemics overwhelm our health care system as medical supplies run out with no replenishment. Imagine hurricane Katrina hitting every major U.S. metropolitan center simultaneously.
The complexity of 21st century warfare requires preparation and, above all, what war has always demanded: sound strategic thought. As always, warfare, at whatever level, remains two thirds mental and one third physical.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.