Home by Christmas…the Short War Delusion

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s response to a question concerning the lack of proper equipment, “You go to war with the Army you have,” rightly prompted some pointed critiques. While the US Army is the world’s finest ground force, it is not optimally structured or equipped for World War IV, a protracted, attritional, global struggle against insurgents and terrorists fighting asymmetrically. Blame rests on many doorsteps.

During the 1990s, while the American military deployed to various “peacekeeping operations” globally, the services simultaneously envisioned force structures, technologies and strategies for meeting twenty-first century challenges. The Army After Next program posited a small, highly lethal force fighting on the “digitized battlefield” using “information dominance” to provide “comprehensive clarity” so rapidly-maneuvering light-but-lethal ground forces could bring “precision fires” to bear at critical points. The Army’s trend toward a lighter force answered an Air Force critique that the Army consisted of “mountains of iron” incapable of deploying rapidly to future battlefields in the Middle East or Asia.

Inter-service rivalry also played a role.  Since the end of World War II service rivalries usually resulted in the Air Force garnering the largest slice of the defense budget pie with the Navy taking the next biggest piece and the Army left with crumbs. In the 1990s, the rivalry between the Air Force and the Army became especially sharp due to competition for defense dollars needed to support weapons acquisitions critical to fulfilling each service’s particular vision of twenty-first century warfare.

The Air Force and the Army posited future threats corresponding to their particular strengths and most cherished weapons development programs. China, a resurgent Russia, Iran (possibly coupled with Shi’ite portions of Iraq as a “New Persia”), and India ranked among the most-likely future threats. A remilitarized Japan and a united Europe qualified as less-likely possibilities. These threats might best be addressed with high-tech, rapidly deployable and extremely lethal forces. This strategic paradigm allowed the services to retain their current basic force structures while acquiring high-tech weaponry suitable to each service’s vision of the operational and tactical requirements for future war. For the Air Force, this included the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter…necessary because the Russians and Indians are deploying fighter planes comparable–if not superior–to the Air Force’s aging F-15 Eagle. The Army, meanwhile, remained committed to acquiring stealthy Comanche attack helicopters and the Crusader gun system, weapons conceived for Cold War battlefields.

Meanwhile, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran, which posed more immediate threats, could be handled by forces still equipped with updated Cold War systems like the M1 Abrams tank, but evolving toward those forces envisioned for the Army of 2025. In terms of conventional warfare, this was correct. The Army and its ground force coalition partners proved devastatingly effective in the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. What the Army is not structured to do, however, is fight a long war of attrition against a foe adept at using asymmetric strategies and tactics.

After Vietnam, Army leaders restructured the force to deal with the realities of the all volunteer force. Accordingly, it was imperative that the National Guard and Army Reserve be involved integrally in future wars of any consequence. Since the assumption was that future wars would be concluded quickly by going to war “with the Army you have” bolstered by the Guard and Reserves, it made sense for a smaller, highly-trained and optimally-equipped regular force to meet the initial challenges while the Reserve components mobilized to “close the deal.”  This is appropriate for quick wars where everyone is “home by Christmas.”  It’s a short war delusion.

High-tech weaponry, like the Army’s proposed (but rightly cancelled) Comanche helicopter and Crusader gun system and the Air Force’s soon to be deployed F-22s and F-35s are appropriate to conventional warfare against similarly-equipped forces.  Historically, the services have argued that these threats are vital because while the nation can lose small wars (like the one it lost in Vietnam), losing to a “peer competitor” would entail disastrous consequences. The governing assumption has been that conventional forces can adapt to fight unconventional foes. While Vietnam bankrupted that notion, it was argued that technological advances had so enhanced our capabilities that this would be possible in future wars. Small forces, supported by the Guard and Reserves, would deliver quick and decisive victories.  If that assumption is wrong, however, we do not have the forces to sustain a protracted war of attrition. And we may lose World War IV.

While Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s focus on restructuring the military into a force primarily focused on air and space power cannot be discounted as contributing to the current dilemma, he is not solely to blame for the pending disaster that may result from a long term, global, attritional war against insurgents and terrorists adept at asymmetric warfare. Nevertheless, difficult but vital strategic decisions need to be made…and time is not on our side.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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