“The best panel at CNAS’s annual conference on national security last week featured SOCOM commander Adm. Eric Olson, CSBA’s Jim Thomas, CNAS’ John Nagl and Brookings’ Peter Singer discussing a future force for future wars. One of its conclusions: Battlefield advantage has swung back in favor of the defender (see southern Lebanon, 2006; Route Irish, Baghdad, 2004-?), which is, after all, the historical norm. With the further maturation and proliferation of long-range precision guided weaponry and attendant open-source battle command networks, warfare may be entering the “post-power projection era.””
There is a valuable and interesting summary of the panel in the article, but it doesn’t expand on this issue. The discussion is largely about the impact of new weapons on minor states, regional powers, and non-state actors and how this might impact future power projection and campaigns, and it sounds like a very valuable and rich debate. It is true that future environments will be less permissive. The main question raised by Grant, however, is whether new weapons going to bolster the defense by a large margin and make power projection a thing of the past. The answer largely hinges on what we define as “defense” as well as the political context of the potential interventions discussed.
In Robert Citino’s The Quest for Decisive Victory, he looks at the evolution of warfare from 1899-1940, focusing on minor campaigns such as the 1912 Bulgarian thrust into Ottoman Thrace as well as the big ones like the 1918 German offensive. Citino’s thesis is that throughout that period of time, the essential military issue was waging a Moltkean war of maneuver in pursuit of the Napoleonic decisive battle. Firepower alone (as per the concept of the “empty battlefield”) was not solely the issue standing in the way of this 19th century concept–it was the command and control problems of large armies waging more distributed campaigns. Firepower did increase the power of the defense, but the converse is this: despite the increased advantages of defensive firepower, good combined arms organization, skillful synchronization of combat arms, and highly mobile forces equipped with sound tactical concepts (see Stephen Biddle’s concept of the “Modern System” of tactics) unraveled enemy defenses.
The period after World War II had a number of conventional campaigns largely in the Third World that were exhaustively analyzed, the most prominent being the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The American interpretations of these conventional campaigns (including the mainforce element of the Vietnam war, less known to many than the guerrilla operations) as well as the operational requirements of the 1980s conventional matchup resulted in the AirLand-Battle concept. The bare bones of AL-B and the technologies that enabled it informed the Army that fought Desert Storm I and II. Although there were some new elements (such as the “extended” battlefield), the basics were still combined arms and operational maneuver. To some degree, the campaign planning debate over Design is really a struggle over how the legacy elements of AL-B could be altered for COIN campaigns.
The problem we have with looking at Lebanon 2006 and IEDs in recent guerrilla wars is that they don’t really conclusively point to an advantage for the defense. Hezbollah mounted a decent defense given its resources and capabilities, but if the IDF decided to come back in force tomorrow with the political determination to completely destroy mainforce Hezbollah units commentators might evaluate the 2006 conflict differently. This goes without mentioning the IDF’s strategic, organizational, and doctrinal problems which have been well-discussed in specialist literature surrounding 2006. Moreover, in a future guerrilla war, are IED attacks and suicide bombers really per se evidence of defensive superiority or just an example of an insurgent group raising the costs for freedom of action? As Paddy Griffith noted in his book Forward into Battle, the North Vietnamese conventional forces (not the Vietcong) managed to carry out denial of freedom of action in the jungles in a manner that recalled World War II’s China-Burma-India theater. The Taliban and Hezbollah are not capable of such operations.
The main issue in regards to defense that strategic thinkers are discussing is in the context of power projection and state and non-state actors with more effective (but cheaper) defensive technology. If American forces deploy in theater could they be denied from operating, either in the littorals (the Chinese “anti-access” challenge) or on land through either conventional or irregular force, by state and non-state actors? That is a largely technical question that is being extensively debated, largely in a speculative context. However, William F. Owen makes a convincing case that a “Toyota Horde” could leverage existing assets to build a competent partisan combined arms force akin to the conventional and irregular Boers during “Black Week.” Such a force might be effective, Owen notes, especially in advantageous terrain. The panel makes a good point in noting that future environments are going to be less permissive and technology will trickle down.
The real question that is not being addressed is one of politics and strategy. If a non-state actor or state power bleeds an intervention force significantly enough, it might, as in Beirut or Somalia, cause doubt about the purpose of the mission. The flip side is that the outside power might be willing to tolerate the costs in order to obtain submission. To return to the example of the Boer War’s “Black Week,” the British suffered some rather shameful setbacks in which many men died. But in the end, the British absorbed everything the Boers had, and as an imperial power with reserves of manpower and money, threw more back. There is a reason why vuvuzelas are tooting in South Africa instead of say, the Orange Free State. The Russians came back to Chechnya in 1999 and erased the humiliation of the Chechen tactics in Grozny four years earlier. And the ultimate example of a small nation bleeding a great power in the 20th century, the “Winter War” of Finland against the Soviet Union, ended with the Soviets extracting painful concessions out of the defenders after grounding the Finnish forces down.
If the intervention is peripheral, then some skillful insurgent or state techno-tactical improvement might deter a power from intervening or expanding the intervention after a tactical setback. And power projection obviously has to adapt to technological improvements in the defense, even if this involves updating some cherished operational and strategic assumptions. But a dictator shouldn’t think that a new missile system or a strategy involving partisan warfare and IEDs would really do much to save their country should the US adopt a “Russian” policy. The technological arms race of offense and defense will continue as it always has. The question of whether the West wishes to accept the costs involved in preserving the ability to project power is the determining issue. And as opinion among defense intellectuals shifts towards stripped-down special operations forces (SOF) advising, targeting, and combined operations and limited liability political objectives the idea of “anti-access” weapons deterring interventions becomes less far-fetched.