Are We Fighting Past Wars?

by L. Todd Wood
The U.S. military needs to look forward to the next conflict.

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.

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