Preparing for the Next Big War

In the face of challenges from a revanchist Russia, Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), David Barno, a former senior American commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, wants US Army leadership to reconsider how best to adapt to rising and modern security threats.

Russian aggression toward the United States, underscored by the recent instance of a Russian jet buzzing a US carrier, requires the immediate attention of US defense capabilities.

“We’ve seen the Russians launch [long-range] cruise missiles into Syria. We could be on the receiving end of that someday,” said Barno, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. The United States this week blamed Russia for attacking a United Nations aid convoy in Syria.

Other challenges, such as in the South China Sea and the war against ISIS in Syria, substantiate Barno’s claim that the US Army must turn its attention to the need for adaptation.

Barno joined Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow for military affairs and national security policy at the Scowcroft Center; and Brad Carson, a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council on September 21. The participants discussed potential adaptations that the US Army can make for modern warfare. Missy Ryan, a journalist with the Washington Post, moderated the event.

“It looks like we’re entering an era of perpetual war,” said Ryan.

Barno and Bensahel are the authors of a new report, The Future of the Army, the content of which informed the conversation.

“The army needs to take seriously preparing for whatever the next big war is,” said Bensahel.

“That doesn’t mean that a conflict with Russia or China is inevitable, far from it, but it is the job of a defense planner to prepare for the most damaging circumstances for US national security,” she added.

This consideration should lie at the heart of transformations designed to organize tactical responses for potential threats, according to Bensahel.  

The threat posed by Russia will determine “how we have to fight against a large, competitive army that has many of the advantages that we have in technology, and precision, and lethality,” said Barno. However, the US Army of 2001, structured to conduct counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, has not adapted to address the threats of 2016.

According to Carson, “on the broadest level, the challenge the army faces…is more intellectual than physical.” He continued, “the army has to think a lot about what future conflict will look like, who it’s going to be against, what you’ll need to do that, and what you’re not going to be able to do.”

Citing the threat posed by ISIS, Bensahel said: “ISIS as a group itself may be defeated, but the threat from the ideology is going to continue,” and the army will always need to be ready for that. Contending that the army has room for improvement on this front, she added: “Readiness is such an issue for the army, and it always has to be.”

While the army as an organization is defined by its adaptability at a tactical level, according to Bensahel, this has not translated to the unwieldy organization of large bureaucratic institutions. Consequently, progress toward efficiency remains slow.

While the panelists agreed that the army must adapt, the implementation of proposals discussed in the report remains constrained by budget concerns. “There will have to be difficult trade-offs,” said Carson. “Even if sequestration is lifted and more money comes to the Pentagon, the real question is, does the army get much of it?”

The army must be considered within the broader context of the US military at large and define its specific role in future combats so as to justify its allotment of the defense budget, said Carson.

Barno asserted that “where the army makes a big contribution…is how you provide security force assistance to other countries, how you build other nations’ militaries…so they support democratic principles and the rule of law.” Security force assistance benefits counterinsurgency fights around the world.

However, “the reality is that the current funding levels…were premised on a different strategic environment than the one we’re in right now,” according to Barno.

Cyber warfare, for example, is a modern threat that the army can help address. According the Bensahel, “cyber is so ubiquitous now in every aspect of life, of course there’s going to be an army role in it.”

While the threat to civilian infrastructure does not sound like an army responsibility, army reserves, specifically the National Guard, can play an important role in protecting government networks.

Barno discussed the importance of “cyber warriors,” teams of individuals with specialized knowledge who can assist with cyber warfare. However, these cyber operators participate in army operations on a “part-time” basis. According to Carson, “civilians are not a substitute at the sharp end of the spear.” Barno described the need to discern how, within a rigid personnel system, these individuals can help the army adapt to cope with this modern security threat.

In their report, Barno and Bensahel recommend 450,000 active army members and 335,000 reserve members. However, “if those numbers go lower, you are going to see a lot more risk out there, and we talk about how to use what we have a lot more effectively,” they write.

The size of the army remains a key concern that has been addressed on the presidential campaign trail. Though Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he will increase the size of the army, according to Barno, “the politics, until something draconian happens, may not shift that.”

Bensahel added, “no matter who wins the election, we don’t think that the ends are fundamentally going to change. The US is still going to remain engaged around the world and have to operate around the world.”

In the long-term, the panelists suggested transforming army culture. However, until more fundamental changes can be implemented, Bensahel said, “we need more army out of the army.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Nora Bensahel

Image: From left: Missy Ryan, a journalist with the Washington Post, moderated a discussion with David Barno, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow for military affairs and national security policy at the Scowcroft Center, and Brad Carson, a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. (Atlantic Council)