The West needs “a complete strategic rethink” of how it goes to war.

In The Australian last November, David Kilcullen argued that “the West’s failed counter-terrorism strategy requires a complete rethink.” Set aside for the moment James Fallows’ screed in The Atlantic last December. Thirteen years of not-quite-winning two wars in the Middle East and South Asia, despite overwhelming material advantage, is not a good track record for national strategy. At this point, the air campaign against ISIS may be holding the line, but it is not rolling anyone back, and cannot do so alone. Frankly, as I argued here more narrowly a few days after Kilcullen (see “Software is Eating the War,” 3 November 2014), the West’s whole defense-industrial strategy could use a thorough rethinking too. Ominously, though, shifting economic and technological trends are rendering questionable its hitherto highly successful massed-precision way of war-fighting. If technological rescues aren’t available soon, a fundamental reorganization of the forces may be necessary.

Around Washington, DC, the first question about any change involves budgets. But while Under Secretary Kendall may complain about being out-invested on half a trillion dollars a year, money isn’t the only factor driving innovation. After all, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Army and Navy Departments produced some pretty innovative concepts—fleet submarines, aircraft carriers, dive bombers, heavy bombers, fast tanks, and a whole suite of equipment and doctrine for amphibious assault. At the time, all the services were working without much money, and the Navy in particular within strong treaty limits.

In the 1950s and 1960s, money flowed freely to stop the Red Menace, and competition amongst the Army, Navy, and Air Force encouraged a similar burst of innovation, particularly in aircraft and missiles. Treaties didn’t bar much either. The resulting massive build-up of nuclear weapons and the doctrine of Massive Retaliation were together called the New Look, but they’ve since been recast as the First Offset strategy. There was, however, bound to be blowback—what to do when the Soviets returned fire with their own battlefield nuclear weapons? The brief answer was the Pentomic Division—a formation of five small infantry regiments with accompanying light artillery that could theoretically disperse widely and quickly in hopes of fighting through the glassing. (Maybe with Iron Man suits and Master Chief… but no.) In any case, the Pentomic organizational structure was widely considered to have hobbled the Army’s ability to fight a conventional conflict, and was thus abandoned by the mid-1960s. The follow-on was a structure similar to that of an armored division of the Second World War, just with more armor.

By the 1970s, the size of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces had rendered meaningless the First Offset, and treaty limits came into place to limit both nuclear forces and missile defenses. Worse, the Warsaw Pact had legions of tanks. But a smart bet that the American military-industrial complex was smarter than the Soviet military-industrial complex led to another, brilliantly successful wave of precision weapons innovation. Along the way, former Defense Secretary Harold Brown actually coined the term “offset strategy” (see William J. Perry, “Desert Storm and Deterrence,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1991). This Second Offset, in the first campaign against Iraq, equipped the troops for some astounding results. Large field formations of Iraqi armored vehicles made brilliant targets against the cold desert at night, and as Air Force Chief of Staff General Ron Fogelman later said, “the Russians got to watch it on television.”

Today, the US faces a problem perhaps worse than mere Cold War nuclear parity. For if one substitutes precision standoff for nuclear, and Chinese for Soviet, the long-term prospects look worse. The Shanghai stock market may have crashed, but Shanghai has a stock market to crash—Beijing doesn’t really impose a socialist chokehold on economic life. The blooming of a thousand Internet technologies has made a variety of commercial and official Chinese actors far more systematic about stealing secrets than the KGB ever could have been with their Minox cameras and dead drops. Oh, and the Chinese military-industrial complex is eager to sell weaponry on the world market. So, if potential enemies might soon be able to fire hordes of precision-guided weapons at American forces, what are the necessary adaptations?

There are at least two possibilities. The first great hope is technological. As the Air Force secretary and chief of staff wrote last year in their thirty-year strategy, “if it costs markedly less for us to defeat a missile than it does for the adversary to build and launch it, the strategic calculus changes significantly” (p. 15). So maybe lasers will save us. If not, what else? Killer robots smarter than theirs? Deputy Secretary Work admits that sustaining a long-term, competitive technological advantage will be much harder this century. My colleague Steve Grundman has observed that some of America’s most competitive industries are software and entertainment. But we’re collectively spooked by cyber vulnerabilities, and the aptly-named Foggy Bottom isn’t clearly out-propagandizing ISIS, the Putinists, the South Sea Chinese, or anyone else. Consequently, that Third Offset Strategy is so far a pudding that lacks a theme.

As in the 1950s, there may be a reorganizational imperative too. American military force still depends on iron mountains of supplies, the concentrated logistics of rail lines and cargo ships, the chokepoints of port facilities, and the high-value targets of large aircraft carriers and airbases. The ground troops still fight in formations similar to those that raced across France in 1944. The Panzertruppen arrayed against them didn’t function well under sustained attack by the Ninth (USAAF) and Second (RAF) Tactical Air Forces. Had those pilots been employing weapons like Brimstones and JDAMs, the results would have been uglier.

At an event at the American Enterprise Institute last month, I had the chance to ask outgoing Army Secretary John McHugh the question—has the potential proliferation of precision led you to reconsider the viability of massed ground forces? He answered with a verbal ablution about the enduring essentiality of ground power, something that sounded like Vader’s admonition to the Grand Moff about the limits of technological terror, and then an encouraging “TRADOC is working on it.” Maybe Training and Doctrine Command isn’t conjuring up another Pentomic debacle, but still something that pays heed to incoming precision firepower too. I imagine that incoming Secretary Eric Fanning will have this on his desk sometime next year.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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