The battle to rebuild America’s military after Iraq—and in preparation for the battles of the 21st century—has begun.
Over the next year, the public is going to find itself buried in proposals for reforming our nation’s military. In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is truly stretched thin: As Army Vice Chief of Staff General William Cody told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, “The current demand for our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds the sustainable supply, and limits our ability to provide ready forces for other contingencies.” All the services are going through equipment–from guns to trucks to bombs–three to four times faster than planned. Yet because procurement decisions are set years in advance, the replenishment rates for equipment have fallen dramatically. And all the services are struggling, and failing, to maintain the very high standards they established for recruits during the 1990s–in particular the Army, which in 2006 granted 8,330 “moral waivers” to recruits with criminal histories. Rejuvenating our armed forces will not be easy. But before we can talk about rebuilding the broken military, we have to decide who our enemies are likely to be, what types of wars we will fight, and what we will need to win them.
One cannot underestimate how much the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed the discussion about the future of the American military. In the 1990s, the smug preoccupation was on “transforming” our forces so they dominate the battlefield–embodied in ideas like the “Network Centric Warfare” promoted by Donald Rumsfeld and Admiral Arthur Cebrowski–to one of playing catch up to rapid changes in the global security landscape. The discussion now pits those who think the primary threat is a “near peer competitor” in a conventional military conflict (China, Russia) against those who see non-state actors, such as insurgents and terrorists, as the primary threat. Given the long lead time and huge expense of new weapon systems, the threat we choose to prepare against today will have major impacts on both domestic and defense spending over the next decade or more–not to mention on our fighting posture when we go to war again. Simply put, defining the threat today is a critical step in designing a defense for tomorrow.
Rather than pick a side, John Arquilla’s Worst Enemy posits that the right kind of organization can fight both enemies with equal effectiveness. Arquilla is no Johnny-come-lately to the defense debate. A veteran RAND analyst with more than 20 monographs to his name, he has been a leading thinker and writer on the subject for over 15 years. In 1993, he and his colleague David Rondfeldt wrote a seminal work on one of the critical ideas in modern military theory–namely, “netwar,” the idea that wars would no longer be fought by hierarchical organizations but by networks linked by ideas and technology, ranging from Al Qaeda to the Animal Liberation Front. They foresaw much of what we face today in the war on terror. They accurately described how insurgents, terrorists, and criminal entities were organized as networks and were using this superior organization to share information and speed decision making. Their argument was controversial, because it directly contradicted the Pentagon’s fascination with high-technology, nation-state war. Time has proven them right. While the Pentagon spent the 1990s funding high-tech projects like the multi-platform Future Combat Systems, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that technology alone cannot guarantee battlefield dominance.
This is not an academic debate confined to the hallowed halls of a think tank. If we fail to understand the character of the conflict we are fighting and will fight in the near future, it is impossible for us to win it and maintain national security. Yet there are no easy answers: no one can seriously predict whether our next conflict will be with a near-peer competitor or a stateless network. But by having this conversation now, and by designing a force that can best meet the sweeping variety of potential challenges ahead, we can hope to prevent a repeat performance of Iraq the next time American forces will have to take to the battlefield.
Worst Enemy is not the best way to begin. Arquilla sets out to explore how warfare is changing by answering two critical questions: “What kind of military is needed to win the war on terror and future conflicts?” and “How should American armed forces be employed?” No two questions could be more central to the future of the American military. But Arquilla answers neither, because he never provides a cohesive view of the strategic future. Instead, he simply observes that the war on terror is “a global struggle between largely tradition-bound nations and innovation-oriented networks, with both the past and future of conflict apparent.” Whatever insight that statement provides on the nature of combating terror, it is not the summation of America’s strategic challenge. Terror is a tactic that a network may choose to use against America–but not the only one. Insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to challenge us for years using a combination of political, economic, social, and military actions. The repeated ability of insurgency to neutralize American power will make it an attractive option for potential enemies of all stripes. And, unlike terrorists, insurgents have demonstrated the ability to seize and hold ground, even to rule a nation. In an increasingly resource constrained world, organizations from Al Qaeda to nation states will adopt networked insurgencies to confront U.S. power.
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