American military leaders, especially those in uniform (as opposed to their civilian leaders, beginning with the President and the Secretary of Defense) are regularly accused by critics of planning for the last war rather than the next one.
The experiences of World War II, with its massive ground, air, and naval forces waging large battles in open terrain while fighting block-by-block through cities devastated by artillery and mortar fire and bombings from aircraft, served as a template for the Cold War military structures maintained by both the United States and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union and the satellite nations it controlled (e.g., East Germany, Poland) on the other. That is all well and good, as the Korean War drew upon similar strategies, tactics, and equipment.
Cold War standoffs over the fate of Berlin only reinforced the notion that large armies built around tanks, for example, were the way to go. The war in Southeast Asia that followed, however, presented the American military with a major challenge—a challenge that it has struggled to meet ever since the fall of Saigon in 1975. How should the US armed forces prepare for war? What kinds of military contingencies are the armed forces most likely to face next time they are called upon? These are the questions that military planners grapple with every day.
The war in Vietnam was a puzzle for the American military from beginning to end. There is good reason for this. For the first half of the conflict, the primary challenge for American military planners was an insurgency maintained by the Viet Cong, a mostly southern Vietnamese guerrilla force that was supplied by and fought in coordination with the communist regime governing North Vietnam. The American Army, in particular, was not structured for such a conflict, being equipped and trained primarily for the large, open-field battles of previous wars.
The notion of counterinsurgency was new and, to many military officers, anathema to their ways of thinking about war. For the first time, the armed forces had to think long and hard about the nature of warfare in the post–World War II era. That the second half of the American war in Vietnam assumed a more conventional form, the Viet Cong having been largely defeated by early 1968 but the North Vietnamese Army now being the major challenge, only added to the difficulties military planners had in thinking about warfare.
In the intervening years between the final withdrawal from Vietnam and the start of Operation Desert Storm in mid-January 1991—the war fought to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait—there continued to be an emphasis on planning for large-scale war, which was understandable, given the continued Cold War standoff between large armies on both sides of the inter-German border.
A major weakness was inadvertently discovered, however, during this intervening period. President Jimmy Carter authorized an attempted rescue of Americans held hostage by the government of Iran. That mission, code named Operation Eagle Claw, was noteworthy not only for the scale of failure and embarrassment to the United States, but for the glaring deficiencies in the American military’s preparation for what was called “low-intensity conflict” the operation revealed. Such conflicts were fought primarily by special operations forces, a long-neglected component of the American armed forces. The disastrous outcome to the rescue mission precipitated a wholesale examination of that part of the American military that would be heavily used in the years ahead, despite having been starved for resources and attention by a military structure focused overwhelmingly on large-scale warfare.
Operation Desert Storm, fought from January 17, 1991 to February 28, 1991, was a model of efficiency for the American armed forces. The lightening quick and overwhelming defeat of Iraqi forces became the new template for American military planning, including the use of special operations forces as well as conventional armored divisions and air forces. Desert Storm, however, was also studied very closely by Russian and Chinese military planners for clues as to American military strengths and weaknesses.
Concurrent with Operation Desert Storm was the final collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War required a shift in thinking by American military planners, one that focused much more on the aforementioned low-intensity conflicts that were likely to arise. Much debate ensued within the Pentagon and between the Pentagon and the United States Congress regarding the future of warfare and the size and structure of military forces that would be needed. How much of the army, navy, and air force should be structured, equipped, and trained for the now-remote possibility of a large-scale war versus the emphasis that should now be placed on smaller-scale conflicts and the presumed threats that would arise from terrorist organizations and insurgencies in regions long neglected due to Cold War considerations? The balance between the two was the subject of hearings on Capitol Hill and of research papers in the Department of Defense and in think tanks surrounding the capital.
Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom, launched in early 1991 and 2003 respectively, illuminated the American military’s excellence at employing special operations forces (following a major effort at improving that area of warfare throughout the late 1980s and 1990s) and at large-scale military operations used to invade Iraq. If these two conflicts served to reinforce any notions, however, it was that counterinsurgency remained exceedingly difficult and costly. The defeat of the Iraqi Army was relatively easy, and the initial overthrow of the Taliban and incomplete defeat (Osama bin Laden escaped to Pakistan, along with other leaders of both the Taliban and al Qaeda) illuminated the skills of the Americans while once again exposing the failures to understand disparate cultures and ethnicities and the difficulties of controlling let alone defeating determined, highly-motivated insurgencies such as those that the American military has continued to fight in both regions.
The leaders of the Armed Forces of the United States will probably never be able to adequately structure and prepare for whatever lies ahead. Prognostications aside, predicting the future remains as difficult as ever and armies, navies, and air forces remain as expensive to purchase, operate, and maintain as ever—in fact, they are even more so, as advanced technologies are incorporated into weapons systems. The role of Congress, moreover, should not be ignored, as it is Congress that is vested by the Constitution with authority to raise armies and it is Congress that controls the budgets.
Unfortunately, and this comes from someone who spent many years working in Congress on precisely these issues, many members of Congress have little to no understanding of military affairs. It is one matter to complain about defense budgets; it is another to understand the complexities involved in assessing future military scenarios and crafting military force structures not only to meet future contingencies but to be prepared for what you do not know lies ahead. It will remain a challenge to understand how many ships and submarines, fighter wings, armored and airborne divisions and brigades, and special operations forces will be needed five or ten years down the road.
Today, the American military is focused on a growing military threat from China, a threat that could draw in US forces in the South China Sea and/or the disputed island of Taiwan, while continuing to fight counterinsurgencies in South Asia, the Middle East, and, from time to time, East Asia (e.g., communist and Islamist insurgencies in the Philippines). It may be wrong to prepare for the last war, but good luck preparing for a future war.