I once believed that industrial power equaled military power. This was always a consistent pattern in history. Union factories helped defeat the Confederacy. Yamamoto weighed the industrial output of the United States before his Pacific campaign. Thinking along those lines, I envisioned that future war was going to be something like a tennis match between drones. Factory nations would lob unmanned weapons over miles to strike each other, sparing the human waste that came with soldiering, yet paying a heavy toll in casualties. The real power to emerge would be the master of production, and that titan would decide the course of economy and culture for decades. But my scenario had plenty of holes.
Many future wars will be dissected into bite-sized conflicts, some waged by drones, data weapons, mercenaries and commandos. Battles will be fought in the streets of ravaged cities or the guarded avenues of cyberspace. But while future war has already entered our reality, there is no way to truly predict the shape of our next battlefield, the effectiveness of our best hardware, and the capability of our next enemy. And that makes preparation and anticipation go to waste.
A drone-eat-drone world
Drones are the darlings of modern warfare. Drones have virtually limitless stamina, dependent only on the maintenance and fuel that give them life. Shooting down a robot also has less consequences for a nation than the loss of a pilot. But unmanned warfare is too sophisticated for its own good. Technology is susceptible to bugs, design flaws, and vulnerabilities in programming and control. While we hold a decisive lead in the drone market, that lead can be broken. Even Iran has boasted about downing a few drones, and based on their habit of reverse-engineering Western hardware, their unmanned capability could expand in the Middle East at an alarming rate.
SEALs are the knife, but not the sword
Special Forces have allowed us to hunt the Taliban in their back yard, knock out Somali pirates, and deliver fatal room service to Bin Laden. They are the elite of the military community and ideal in precision warfare. But their intensive training and the high risk involved in operations keep commandos in an exclusive club. SEALs and Rangers can cherry-pick our targets, but they can’t hold territory. If you want to dominate a region or defeat a large enemy, you need brigade combat teams, Marine expeditionary forces, and airborne infantry. When the battle spirals out of control, we always face the risk of deploying greater numbers that commandos cannot provide.
The toughest baddies are low tech
For all their marvelous abilities, stealth planes and attack subs have limited effectiveness against guys in caves. Clandestine enemies in small groups are like mosquitoes, leeches and wasps. Annoying and aggravating, they can swarm around a professional army and cause considerable damage. They have an intimate understanding of their climate and terrain. They have bolt holes and escape routes. They have close ties to the locals. They don’t wear uniforms or drive around in blatantly obvious army vehicles. They don’t need defense contracts when the black market will suffice. Low tech enemies are nothing new. Think about colonial Minutemen versus Red Coats. Think about the Viet Cong versus American infantry. Think about Afghan militants, who hounded the British and Russians long before the coalition arrived in 2001. Low-tech fighting is a form of economical combat that has pestered and weakened Western powers for centuries. Its edge is not in technology but in exploitation, and if prolonged, can demonstrate the cost of war to an opponent.
Future war = strategic management
I do not relish war. The sight of soldiers climbing into a transport or infantry crouching in a bullet-ridden alley is frightening to me—and I yearn for peace of any manner in every nation. But if we are faced with an adversary that offers no other alternative, then I can only hope for a fast and decisive engagement.
National defense needs a strong military in a constant state of development. We have to learn from our weaknesses to take down the evils of the world. There must also be a kind of strategic management in the prevention of large conflict, and that management should be a predominant activity. Intelligence gathering should never be depleted in resources, for our foreknowledge of a threat (and proper interpretation) can prevent that threat from taking shape. And for every team of special forces that lands on foreign soil, there should be a public equivalent in diplomatic operations—opening channels, scoring deals, and making friends is better than making enemies. (Such a formula was proposed by Secretary of State Clinton last May.)
If we balance new technology and doctrines with sensibility, and be watchful for battles that consume troops at an alarming rate, then we have the chance to achieve global stability. That is the one goal that can bring real victory, and a future worth every ounce of labor.