There is a trite saying that the military always prepares for the last war. A better formulation would be that the military almost always prepares for the wrong war. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the military’s focus was on a Third World War that never happened. In fairness to the entire national security establishment, one of the reasons it never happened was because our preparations were so good that our prospective adversaries were deterred. Nevertheless, every major conflict from the Korean War onward was unanticipated. Moreover, the character of these conflicts came as a surprise. Despite all the efforts of the intelligence community, the strategists in the individual services, wise men and defense analysts, every war has been a surprise.
As a consequence, there has always been something of a mismatch between the military capabilities available at the start of the conflict and what is needed to fight successfully. In a now infamous off-the-cuff response to a critical question by a soldier in Iraq about the reason for the lack of adequate armor on military vehicles, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opined that “you go to war with the military you have – not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” At the time this was considered a dismissive or even callous statement. But on reflection, it is a true statement. The U.S. military has had to fight every war of the last sixty years with a force structure and set of systems designed and intended for a different type of war and a different form of combat. Sometimes there was not enough ammunition, spare parts or even personnel.
Today, the U.S. military is tying itself in knots trying to deal with its own history of guessing wrong, not anticipating where and how conflicts will arise and be conducted. There is a lot of talk in planning documents about a world of uncertainty, an international environment characterized by some as chaotic and of adversaries who will employ something called hybrid strategies, meaning they will do lots of different things. Unfortunately, the military is struggling to bring order to this chaos. It has two approaches for doing this. The first is to take all the trends and dynamics in the world and try to figure out what the future will actually look like. The second is to prepare for every eventuality. Of course, if history is of any relevance to this problem, the military will guess wrong.
But not to worry! The genius of the U.S. military is not that it correctly anticipates and prepares for the next war but rather that it is so flexible and adaptable that it rapidly and successfully transforms into the kind of military that can and usually does win the conflict. A post-war military serving as a constabulary force in post-war Europe and East Asia successfully repelled successive North Korean and Chinese assaults on South Korea. Similarly, a military designed and intended to fight the Soviet Union on the plains of Germany fought the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese masters to a standstill. The military that won the Cold War then turned around and became a counterinsurgency/ stabilization force in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. military has demonstrated remarkable transformative capabilities. It has created numerous institutions such as the Rapid Fielding Initiative, Rapid Equipping Force, Joint IED Defeat Organization, Task Force ODIN and the Asymmetric Warfare Group all of which contributed to the ability to make the necessary changes in organizations, tactics and capabilities that resulted in success in Iraq and, I would argue, a position of advantage in Afghanistan. The military deployed some 30,000 MRAPs in about three years. It invented whole classes of unmanned aerial systems such as the Predator, Scan Eagle, Raven and Global Hawk. As fast as the insurgents changed their methods for employing IEDS, the military came up with responses. The secret to the military’s successes is the ability to adapt and change on the fly.
The U.S. military needs to stop driving itself crazy seeking to anticipate where the next conflict will occur and how it will be fought. Instead, what it needs to do now is ensure that the extremely clever organizations, practices, authorities and systems put in place over the past decade in response to the need for rapid change survive and even flourish. It also needs to maintain a healthy defense industrial base and robust science and technology community so that when the urgent operational needs start flowing back from the field, the capability to respond will exist.
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