Ever since the end of the Cold War, there has been an assumption that conventional warfare between reasonably developed nation-states had been abolished. During the 1990s, it was expected that the primary purpose of the military would be operations other than war, such as peacekeeping, disaster relief and the change of oppressive regimes. After 9/11, many began speaking of asymmetric warfare and "the long war." Under this model, the United States would be engaged in counterterrorism activities in a broad area of the Islamic world for a very long time. Peer-to-peer conflict seemed obsolete.
There was a profoundly radical idea embedded in this line of thought. Wars between nations or dynastic powers had been a constant condition in Europe, and the rest of the world had been no less violent. Every century had had systemic wars in which the entire international system (increasingly dominated by Europe since the 16th century) had participated. In the 20th century, there were the two World Wars, in the 19th century the Napoleonic Wars, in the 18th century the Seven Years' War, and in the 17th century the Thirty Years' War.
Those who argued that U.S. defense policy had to shift its focus away from peer-to-peer and systemic conflict were in effect arguing that the world had entered a new era in which what had been previously commonplace would now be rare or nonexistent. What warfare there was would not involve nations but subnational groups and would not be systemic. The radical nature of this argument was rarely recognized by those who made it, and the evolving American defense policy that followed this reasoning was rarely seen as inappropriate. If the United States was going to be involved primarily in counterterrorism operations in the Islamic world for the next 50 years, we obviously needed a very different military than the one we had.
That generals always fight the last war must be amended to say that generals always believe the war they are fighting is the permanent war.
There were two reasons for this argument. Military planners are always obsessed with the war they are fighting. It is only human to see the immediate task as a permanent task. During the Cold War, it was impossible for anyone to imagine how it would end. During World War I, it was obvious that static warfare dominated by the defense was the new permanent model. That generals always fight the last war must be amended to say that generals always believe the war they are fighting is the permanent war. It is, after all, the war that was the culmination of their careers, and imagining other wars when they are fighting this one, and indeed will not be fighting future ones, appeared frivolous.
The second reason was that no nation-state was in a position to challenge the United States militarily. After the Cold War ended, the United States was in a singularly powerful position. The United States remains in a powerful position, but over time, other nations will increase their power, form alliances and coalitions and challenge the United States. No matter how benign a leading power is — and the United States is not uniquely benign — other nations will fear it, resent it or want to shame it for its behavior. The idea that other nation-states will not challenge the United States seemed plausible for the past 20 years, but the fact is that nations will pursue interests that are opposed to American interest and by definition, pose a peer-to-peer challenge. The United States is potentially overwhelmingly powerful, but that does not make it omnipotent.
Systemic vs. Asymmetric War
It must also be remembered that asymmetric warfare and operations other than war always existed between and during peer-to-peer wars and systemic wars. The British fought an asymmetric war in both Ireland and North America in the context of a peer-to-peer war with France. Germany fought an asymmetric war in Yugoslavia at the same time it fought a systemic war from 1939-1945. The United States fought asymmetric wars in the Philippines, Nicaragua, Haiti and other places between 1900-1945.
Asymmetric wars and operations other than war are far more common than peer-to-peer and systemic wars. They can appear overwhelmingly important at the time. But just as the defeat of Britain by the Americans did not destroy British power, the outcomes of asymmetric wars rarely define long-term national power and hardly ever define the international system. Asymmetric warfare is not a new style of war; it is a permanent dimension of warfare. Peer-to-peer and systemic wars are also constant features but are far less frequent. They are also far more important. For Britain, the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars was much more important than the outcome of the American Revolution. For the United States, the outcome of World War II was far more important than its intervention in Haiti. There are a lot more asymmetric wars, but a defeat does not shift national power. If you lose a systemic war, the outcome can be catastrophic.
A military force can be shaped to fight frequent, less important engagements or rare but critical wars — ideally, it should be able to do both. But in military planning, not all wars are equally important. The war that defines power and the international system can have irreversible and catastrophic results. Asymmetric wars can cause problems and casualties, but that is a lesser mission. Military leaders and defense officials, obsessed with the moment, must bear in mind that the war currently being fought may be little remembered, the peace that is currently at hand is rarely permanent, and harboring the belief that any type of warfare has become obsolete is likely to be in error.
The oceans protect the United States from everything but terrorism and nuclear missiles.
Ukraine drove this lesson home. There will be no war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. The United States does not have interests there that justify a war, and neither country is in a position militarily to fight a war. The Americans are not deployed for war, and the Russians are not ready to fight the United States.
But the events in Ukraine point to some realities. First, the power of countries shifts, and the Russians had substantially increased their military capabilities since the 1990s. Second, the divergent interests between the two countries, which seemed to disappear in the 1990s, re-emerged. Third, this episode will cause each side to reconsider its military strategy and capabilities, and future crises might well lead to conventional war, nuclear weapons notwithstanding. Ukraine reminds us that peer-to-peer conflict is not inconceivable, and that a strategy and defense policy built on the assumption has little basis in reality. The human condition did not transform itself because of an interregnum in which the United States could not be challenged; the last two decades are an exception to the rule of global affairs defined by war.
U.S. national strategy must be founded on the control of the sea. The oceans protect the United States from everything but terrorism and nuclear missiles. The greatest challenge to U.S. control of the sea is hostile fleets. The best way to defeat hostile fleets is to prevent them from being built. The best way to do that is to maintain the balance of power in Eurasia. The ideal path for this is to ensure continued tensions within Eurasia so that resources are spent defending against land threats rather than building fleets. Given the inherent tensions in Eurasia, the United States needs to do nothing in most cases. In some cases it must send military or economic aid to one side or both. In other cases, it advises.
U.S. Strategy in Eurasia
The main goal here is to avoid the emergence of a regional hegemon fully secure against land threats and with the economic power to challenge the United States at sea. The U.S. strategy in World War I was to refuse to become involved until it appeared, with the abdication of the czar and increasing German aggression at sea, that the British and French might be defeated or the sea-lanes closed. At that point, the United States intervened to block German hegemony. In World War II, the United States remained out of the war until after the French collapsed and it appeared the Soviet Union would collapse — until it seemed something had to be done. Even then, it was only after Hitler's declaration of war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that Congress approved Roosevelt's plan to intervene militarily in continental Europe. And in spite of operations in the Mediterranean, the main U.S. thrust didn't occur until 1944 in Normandy, after the German army had been badly weakened.
In order for this strategy, which the U.S. inherited from the British, to work, the United States needs an effective and relevant alliance structure. The balance-of-power strategy assumes that there are core allies who have an interest in aligning with the United States against regional enemies. When I say effective, I mean allies that are capable of defending themselves to a great extent. Allying with the impotent achieves little. By relevant, I mean allies that are geographically positioned to deal with particularly dangerous hegemons.
If we assume Russians to be dangerous hegemons, then the relevant allies are those on the periphery of Russia. For example, Portugal or Italy adds little weight to the equation. As to effectiveness, the allies must be willing to make major commitments to their own national defense. The American relationship in all alliances is that the outcome of conflicts must matter more to the ally than to the United States.
The point here is that NATO, which was extremely valuable during the Cold War, may not be a relevant or effective instrument in a new confrontation with the Russians. Many of the members are not geographically positioned to help, and many are not militarily effective. They cannot balance the Russians. And since the goal of an effective balance-of-power strategy is the avoidance of war while containing a rising power, the lack of an effective deterrence matters a great deal.
It is not certain by any means that Russia is the main threat to American power. Many would point to China. In my view, China's ability to pose a naval threat to the United States is limited, for the time being, by the geography of the South and East China seas. There are a lot of choke points that can be closed. Moreover, a balance of land-based military power is difficult to imagine. But still, the basic principle I have described holds; countries such as South Korea and Japan, which have a more immediate interest in China than the United States does, are supported by the United States to contain China.
In these and other potential cases, the ultimate problem for the United States is that its engagement in Eurasia is at distance. It takes a great deal of time to deploy a technology-heavy force there, and it must be technology-heavy because U.S. forces are always outnumbered when fighting in Eurasia. The United States must have force multipliers. In many cases, the United States is not choosing the point of intervention, but a potential enemy is creating a circumstance where intervention is necessary. Therefore, it is unknown to planners where a war might be fought, and it is unknown what kind of force they will be up against. The only thing certain is that it will be far away and take a long time to build up a force. During Desert Storm, it took six months to go on the offensive.
An offensive against the Russians in Ukraine would have been impossible.
American strategy requires a force that can project overwhelming power without massive delays. In Ukraine, for example, had the United States chosen to try to defend eastern Ukraine from Russian attack, it would have been impossible to deploy that force before the Russians took over. An offensive against the Russians in Ukraine would have been impossible. Therefore, Ukraine poses the strategic problem for the United States.
The Future of U.S. Defense Policy
The United States will face peer-to-peer or even systemic conflicts in Eurasia. The earlier the United States brings in decisive force, the lower the cost to the United States. Current conventional war-fighting strategy is not dissimilar from that of World War II: It is heavily dependent on equipment and the petroleum to power that equipment. It can take many months to field that force. That could force the United States into an offensive posture far more costly and dangerous than a defensive posture, as it did in World War II. Therefore, it is essential that the time to theater be dramatically reduced, the size of the force reduced, but the lethality, mobility and survivability dramatically increased.
It also follows that the tempo of operations be reduced. The United States has been in constant warfare since 2001. The reasons are understandable, but in a balance-of-power strategy war is the exception, not the rule. The force that could be deployed is seen as overwhelming and therefore does not have to be deployed. The allies of the United States are sufficiently motivated and capable of defending themselves. That fact deters attack by regional hegemons. There need to be layers of options between threat and war.
Defense policy must be built on three things: The United States does not know where it will fight. The United States must use war sparingly. The United States must have sufficient technology to compensate for the fact that Americans are always going to be outnumbered in Eurasia. The force that is delivered must overcome this, and it must get there fast.
Ranges of new technologies, from hypersonic missiles to electronically and mechanically enhanced infantryman, are available. But the mindset that peer-to-peer conflict has been abolished and that small unit operations in the Middle East are the permanent features of warfare prevent these new technologies from being considered. The need to rethink American strategy in the framework of the perpetual possibility of conventional war against enemies fighting on their own terrain is essential, along with an understanding that the exhaustion of the force in asymmetric warfare cannot be sustained. Losing an asymmetric war is unfortunate but tolerable. Losing a systemic war could be catastrophic. Not having to fight a war would be best.