Are We Fighting Past Wars?
The U.S. military needs to look forward to the next conflict.

B-1 bomber



After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line on Germany’s border to deter and repel any German-army incursion into the homeland. Unfortunately for the French, they prepared for the defensive trench warfare that characterized WWI and were caught flat-footed by the blitzkrieg tactics of the new German army. They were subsequently overrun in a matter of days by the powerful mobile force.

At the Air Force Academy, it was drilled into me during Professional Military Studies that historically militaries fight the last war. In other words, they train and equip to fight the last conflict they were involved in, while overlooking different types of threats on the horizon. It’s a familiar, natural impulse, but it’s disconcerting that the U.S. military is on a path of committing this strategic error.

Since 9/11, the United States has fought two low-intensity conflicts. Special-operations forces have been front and center. It is a vital and necessary part of our defense structure to be able to respond to unconventional threats in an unconventional manner.

However, it is likely that the next conflict that engulfs the United States will be global and conventional in nature. We are not prepared for this scenario.

The majority of our current bomber force started production in 1952, hence the B-52 designation. We are still flying the H model, which was the last variant of 744 bombers produced and was fielded in 1962. Yes, it has been modified and modernized, but the airframe is absolutely ancient by military standards. The Air Force has about 20 B-2s, which cost about $1 billion each and are designed with decades-old stealth technology. The approximately 60 B-1s still in service were canceled by Jimmy Carter and resurrected under Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup. They also rely on an obsolete design. The youngest of the crowd is the B-2, and even that is over 20 years old. We have pilots flying the same tail numbers their grandfathers did.

The fundamental purpose of air power is to deliver ordnance precisely on a target in a devastatingly effective way. That’s what bombers do. In a drawn-out global conflict with reasonable estimates of attrition, these 180 aircraft are in danger of being decimated in a period of weeks or months. Even small, rogue nations today have state-of-the-art antiaircraft technology, which could potentially wipe out our bomber capabilities and advantage.

So let’s turn to the Navy. Currently, the U.S. Navy has fewer than 300 combat ships. Yes, these vessels can do jobs that required multiple ships in the past, and they are very powerful, but they are still only 300 ships. In asymmetric warfare, the enemy will employ tactics to use this concentration of power in a small number of ships against us. Our adversaries, such as China, have developed very capable antiship missiles. We can defend ourselves against the missile threat up to a certain point through advanced technology. However, they can destroy our ships if they have enough missiles. And they can do it at a much lower cost than building a blue-water fleet of their own.

As for our land forces, we are currently in the middle of a force reduction of approximately 80,000 soldiers for the U.S. Army and around 20,000 for the Marines. Recently it was announced that the administration wants to reduce the Army to pre-WWII levels. Several years ago, the United States gave up the capability to fight and win two conflicts at once around the globe. Soon, we simply will not have a large enough force structure to fight one.

Yes, we have the greatest military in the world. And it is true that no one can challenge our Air Force or Navy in the sky or on the seas. That is, not yet.

The fiscal pressures our country faces have brought about this diminution in military capability. There is no end in sight to the reduction in expenditures for the Pentagon. Of course there is waste to be cut in the Department of Defense. However, we have to be careful not to impede the modernization of our conventional forces. The United States also has to be careful to not allow hyper-expensive weapon systems pushed by industry to crowd out the procurement of less expensive, capable, survivable armaments in larger numbers. We are dangerously close to being unable to sustain a large-scale, drawn-out, global conflict.

The best war is the one not fought. If our potential military adversaries perceive us as weak, that is an invitation to war. If we continue to de-emphasize our conventional forces, we will invite this disaster.

— L. Todd Wood, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, was a special-operations helicopter pilot and traded emerging-market debt on Wall Street. His thriller novel, Currency, deals with the national-security consequences of our sovereign debt.

A-10 Thunderbolt
Secretary of defense Chuck Hagel has submitted a new Pentagon budget plan that, among other priorities, calls for the elimination of the A-10 Thunderbolt from the Air Force’s inventory. Here’s a look at the Thunderbolt and its recent budget battles.
Renowned for its lethal striking power and rugged airframe, the Thunderbolt has proven its mettle on thousands of combat missions in more than three decades in service, including during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Previous Pentagon plans had called for the Thunderbolt to remain in the Air Force inventory through 2028, with continuing upgrades to avionics and weapons systems.
If the Thunderbolt arsenal is eliminated, the close air support role will likely be filled by the F-35A Lightning II fighter, which has greater range and more modern sensors. Drone platforms such as the MQ-9 Reaper would also likely play an increased role.
But some critics think the F-35 will not be as effective in missions involving low altitudes and long loiter times, and that the aircraft is not as rugged as the Thunderbolt in surviving enemy fire.
“The A-10 is the premier close air support aircraft that all the ground commanders and combatant commanders want and ask for by name,” said Thunderbolt pilot Brian Davis in a recent edition of National Defense Magazine.
The Thunderbolt has survived previous budget cuts and Pentagon reviews and has many supporters. A fight in Congress to retain the aircraft seems likely.
THE “WARTHOG”: First deployed in 1976, the A-10 Thunderbolt was originally designed to take on Soviet tanks and armor and provide close-air support in a large, conventional European war. The aircraft’s design is optimized for range, the ability to remain over the battlefield for extended periods, and for durability.
Flying combat missions over Iraq (in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom) and Afghanistan (in Operation Enduring Freedom), the A-10 proved its ability to provide critical close-air support to troops on the ground.
Markings on a Thunderbolt with the 74th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing, show its numerous kills during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Because of its low-altitude and low-speed chops, the Thunderbolt has also been pressed into service on search and rescue missions looking for other downed pilots.
The Thunderbolt’s main weapon is the 30mm GAU-8 Avenger, a massive rotary cannon system. The Avenger fires 3,900 depleted-uranium rounds per minute.
A Thunderbolt fires its Avenger cannon.
The Thunderbolt can also carry a range of ordnance under its wings, including JDAM munitions, AGM-65 Maverick and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
The Thunderbolt delivers a punch, and it can take one as well. Its airframe includes added armor that protect the cockpit and key flight controls, and its triple-redundant flight systems and self-sealing fuel tanks help ensure the aircraft can make it back to base after taking hits.
This Thunderbolt was struck by anti-aircraft fire and heavily damaged over Baghdad in 2003, but was able to return to base.
The Thunderbolt’s large wings and ailerons give it added maneuverability at low speeds, and contribute to its ability to linger over the battlefield and pound targets over and over again.
A Thunderbolt releases chaff to scramble enemy targeting systems.
The Thunderbolt’s engines are mounted high to allow it to operate from poorly-maintained or damaged air fields — what the Air Force terms “austere bases" — where ground debris can endanger engine intakes.
Over the years the Thunderbolt’s avionics and weapons systems have been upgraded to continue its effective service lifespan.
The Thunderbolt’s nickname — the “Warthog” — is a legacy of previous Fairchild Republic aircraft.
WILD BLUE YONDER: Here’s a look at the A-10 Thunderbolt deployed with Air Force crews around the world in recent years.
A pair of Thunderbolts with the 107th Fighter Squadron, Michigan Air National Guard, take off from Selfridge Air National Guard Base. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Robert Hanet)
A Thunderbolt with the 107th Fighter Squadron approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker with the 171st Air Refueling Squadron over the continental United States. Both squadrons are based at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Daniel Heaton)
A crew chief with the 127th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron inspects a line of Thunderbolts at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. (Photo: Master Sergeant Terry Atwell)
Ground crews with the 127th Maintenance Squadron service a Thunderbolt at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Robert Hanet)
Airman First Class Alecia Harris, 127th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, buttons up a panel on a Thunderbolt flown by Lieutenant Colonel Doug Champagne, 127th Operations Group, at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. (Photo: Master Sergeant Terry Atwell)
Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Saridakis, a pilot with the 107th Fighter Squadron, climbs out of the cockpit of his Thunderbolt at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. (Photo: Technical Sergeant David Kujawa)
A Thunderbolt based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker for a nighttime aerial refueling maneuver in the skies over Kansas. (Photo: Airman First Class Colby L. Hardin)
Nose art on a Thunderbolt with the 40th Flight Test Squadron. (Photo: Samuel King)
Nose art on a Thunderbolt with the 188th Fighter Wing. (Photo: Senior Master Sergeant Dennis Brambl)
Afghanistan: Lieutenant Colonel Michael Millen, 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, sits on the tarmac at Kandahar Airfield. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Efren Lopez)
Technical Sergeant James Foster with the 107th Aircraft Maintenance Unit marshals a Thunderbolt at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Photo: Senior Airman David Carbajal)
Technical Sergeant Ben Jonkman, 107th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, prepares a Thunderbolt for flight at Kandahar Airfield. (Photo: Senior Airman Corey Hook)
Senior Airman Ken Choate (right) and Technical Sergeant James Foster, 107th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, unload a GBU-38 munitions at Kandahar Airfield. (Photo: Senior Airman Corey Hook)
Senior Airman Steve Roeper, 107th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, inspects the weapons rack on a Thunderbolt at Kandahar Airfield. (Photo: Senior Airman Corey Hook)
A pilot with the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron signals “good to go” on the runway at Bagram Airfield. (Photo: Staff Sergeant Craig Seals)
A Thunderbolt taxis to the flight line at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. (Photo: Senior Airman Chris Willis)
A pilot with the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron preps his Thunderbolt for flight at Bagram Airfield. (Photo: Captain Raymond Geoffroy)
Lieutenant Colonel David Dressel, 75th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, in the cockpit of his Thunderbolt at Bagram Airfield. (Photo: Staff Sergeant Rachel Martinez)
A pilot with the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, call sign “Metro,” stands before his A-10 Thunderbolt at Bagram Airfield. (Photo: Captain Raymond Geoffroy)
Staff Sergeants Ryan Castle (left) and Brian Chatham, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, load precision-guided munitions onto a Thunderbolt at Bagram Airfield. (Photo: Staff Sergeant Stephenie Wade)
A Thunderbolt with the 81st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron links up with a KC-135 Stratotanker with the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron in the skies over Afghanistan. (Photo: Airman First Class Lonnie Mast)
Iraq: Maryland Air National Guard Senior Airman Daniel Young marshals a Thunderbolt with the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron for munitions disarming after a night mission at Al Asad Air Base. (Photo: Staff Sergeant Angelique Perez)
Ground crew with the 438th Air Expeditionary Group stand alongside a Thunderbolt at Al Asad Airbase. (Photo: Air Force PAO)
Updated: Mar. 04, 2014