Big War Is Back

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 506th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, refuels a B-52 Stratofortress over the Indian Ocean June 10, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gerald R. Willis). Flickr / U.S. Department of D
September 8, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: WarMilitaryTechnologyWeaponsChina

Big War Is Back

Great-power competition means that the next great military challenge is around the bend.

Defense Planning Myopia

The RMA-induced concept of military transformation is probably the worst thing that ever happened to Western armed forces during the post–Cold war era. Military transformation implies a foundational change that needs to be implemented quickly. But as anyone even remotely familiar with defense planning acknowledges, big and quick changes in the field of defense are impossible. Surely enough, getting rid of existing military capability can be done quickly—in a matter of years. Nothing similar is possible on the procurement side of the equation. Today’s armed forces fight with systems (weapon systems, C2-systems etc.) that have been developed and procured since the 1960s (and even before that as for example B-52 Stratofortress testifies). Cutting old “excess” capability—to get rid of the legacy military “overweight”—will not make building new capability any easier or faster. Nor will governments pour in additional money for military investments—particularly in an age when the “peace dividend” and austerity measures rule.

A true military transformation thus takes decades. But what differentiates this so-called military transformation from the “normal” process of defense planning that looks some twenty years into the future taking into account the legacy systems that are in the armories today and well into the future. Here is where the problem lies. Western states decommissioned, disbanded and cut a huge number of platforms, troops and military systems as useless during the 1990s and after that. “Big wars” were supposedly over. But these Western states did not get any new systems, troops or platforms to replace the lost capability. They started building some new capabilities with low level of investment resources in a process that takes years—or decades. Cutting the Cold War era military overweight was not so much an American problem as it had the numbers to make significant cuts. It was—and is—mostly a European problem. Still today, many European are trying to recover from past decisions—in a tense international-security situation where both Russia and China have been able to surprise everyone. Even the best niche capabilities for multinational military crisis management or counterinsurgency warfare are mostly useless—or of little use—for deterring a great power adversary, not to mention defeating one in the battlefield.

A Way Forward

History of the last thirty years could teach us several things about how to approach future defense policy formulation and military capability development. First, technology is important, but it will not revolutionize warfare in the coming years. Today many analysts are focusing on artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology et al. They are all becoming buzzwords, just like cyber war or the revolution in military affair before them. These new fields of technology will have an important impact of the future character of war. But they will not make quick foundational changes in how wars are waged. Technology does not a strategy make. Nor will new technological discoveries escape the long-term logic of defense planning or the action-reaction cycle of weapons and counter-weapons. We live in a world where information is really moving at light-speed.

Second, the use of military force to solve political problems should be the last option in the toolbox of statesmen. We should use restraint much more than has been the case during the post–Cold War era. Many of the security threats facing the West today are at least in part self-inflicted. Today’s costs of war—in blood, treasure and the wear and tear of military capability—in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are staggeringly high when compared to the strategic significance of these countries for Western security. The $5 trillion price tag of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the United States alone is indicative of the bad choices made some years ago. Not to mention the thousands of dead soldiers and the boost to terrorist recruitment that these wars have caused.

Third, the West should stop trying to manage international stability militarily. According to the 2018 fragile state index, there are sixty-one states in the world that are either categorized as “high warning” (twenty-nine), “alert” (nineteen), “high alert” (seven) and “very high alert” (six). If Western states intend to continue on the path of stability operations, military crisis management and even counterinsurgency warfare, business is going to be good for the next one hundred years. Unfortunately, the empirical evidence from the last thirty years suggests that rather than be capable of solving acute crises with the force of arms out-of-area, the West could actually end up less secure trying. And at the same time, Western states would continue developing wrong kind of militaries in a situation where a big war approach would be needed.

Big War Is Back

Ditching aside the long-term view needed in defense planning, many Western states (mostly in Europe) have ended up with militaries that are not well-suited to perform in the emerging adversarial multipolar world with great-power competition and the potential large-scale use of military force to conquer territory. Having exuberant ideas about what can be achieved with the use of military force in the post–Cold War era, Western states have militarized their security policies. This is ironic, as the end of the Cold War was supposed to be a start of something different. It was supposed to be all about cooperative security, increasing interdependence and the strengthening of international institutions. Instead, by redefining their perspective on international security, many Western states have waged war almost continually for thirty years. And they have done so amid an international-security situation that has been extremely benign, without any serious security threats directed against the West. Now that potential existential threats are back in the horizon, Western states need to overcome the wear and tear of the past wars of choice and at the same time prepare themselves for the next potential war. If it comes, it is going to be a big war. Being prepared is the best way to avoid it.

Lt. Col. Jyri Raitasalo is military professor of war studies at the Finnish National Defence University. The views expressed here are his own.

ImageA U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 506th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, refuels a B-52 Stratofortress over the Indian Ocean June 10, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gerald R. Willis). Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense